Is Calling Your Workplace A Family Toxic?

We’ve all seen companies describe their workplace culture as a “family” before. But did you know that it could be toxic?

According to Joshua A. Luna, who writes weekly for Harvard Business Review, this is one of “the biggest organisational mistakes” he sees.

“It’s no surprise since we spend most of our waking hours (approximately one-third of our life) at work,” he explains. “Our relationships with our coworkers serve many functions—they can help us grow in our career and provide us emotional support and friendship. So it only makes sense that the relationships you build at work can mirror those you find within a family context.”

The leadership development trainer, explains that while some traits of a family can seep into the workplace such as respect, caring and a sense of belonging, saying that a workplace is “family-like” can create more harm.

What Is A Family-like Work Culture?

Essentially, family in the context of work culture is a metaphor for a team who puts their employers before anything else. Just like you would a family.

This can mean being loyal to your company, doing your best for your colleagues, or to be selfless when at work. While this sounds great, it can have negative impacts on mental health and wellbeing.

Blurring Personal and Professional

Luna writes that trying to “sell” your business’ culture being a family can set up employees for failure: “We must understand that “family” means different things to different people,” he explains. “Not everyone wants to connect with their coworkers on a deeper level, let alone create a dependency on the organisation.”

The expert goes on to say that some employees will want or need to reserve private details of their personal lives outside of work. However, this doesn’t mix well with “family-like” work cultures.

What Does Research Say About Family-like Work Cultures?

The Rivers State University of Science and Technology in Nigeria conducted research in 2018 on “Organisational family culture.” According to the study, when employees see their colleagues as family or “brothers and sisters” there is better business performance due to performing well when working as a team.

“Organisations with a culture that encourages supportive and friendly work environment, where members see and relate to each other as a family derived better business performance as they are likely to perform well in teamwork,” says the research. “This is because employees‘ genuine and total commitment can only take place or develops when the employee considers himself as a part of the organizations‘ family or part of the system.”

Does Family-like Work Culture Fit With Virtual Or Hybrid Workplaces?

While the research is positive, Luna says that taking such a work culture can be “more challenging” in virtual or hybrid environments. This is particularly true for companies that haven’t worked remotely or virtually before.

“Research shows when managers cannot “see” their direct reports, they sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are actually working,” explains Luna. “This might prompt managers to seek out employees’ start and stop times as well as information about what they are doing all day long when on company time.

“Marry this with cultures that prioritise output of work over outcomes, and employers will feel entitled to knowledge that is only relevant to the employee.”

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This is especially true when loyalty to an employer, due to the family-like work culture, has become harmful to employees. It can get misconstrued as expectations form for employees to go above and beyond, explains Luna.

For example, employees might feel that they need to stay after hours or work unreasonable hours because it’s in the best interests of the family. This is neglecting their own mental health and wellbeing.

Luna continues that when employees work under this mentality, it doesn’t take long for performance and productivity to drop due to burnout. A perception is then created that employees believe they are not doing their part within the team.

Businesses need to ensure that their employees do not feel that they have to give their entire lives to the business. When putting your next job advertisement out to the public, consider how you frame your work culture and whether it is negatively impacting your workers.


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