No, a Workplace is Not a Family
Exploring more useful and inclusive terms for groups
Family appears with many meanings and in many situations. From blood relatives, to chosen personal inner circles, to scenes about “the family” reminiscent of classic gangster movies, or a group discussed in chemistry, the term pops up frequently.
Merriam-Webster includes everything from the social unit definitions to mathematical principles, chemistry, crime syndicates, and groups of people with shared convictions in an affiliation or fellowship.
What is missing? The workplace.
A quick Google keyword search of “workplace AND family” pops up articles from well-known outlets like Harvard Business Review, New York Times, and Forbes about the negative impacts of branding a workplace as a family.
Perhaps a small argument could be made that a workplace is a group of people with those shared convictions, affiliation, or fellowship. However, that is not necessarily true. Clearly, from that quick Google search, others tend to agree.
While there are benefits of family-like closeness and belonging for the employees and financial benefits of higher performance for employers, this can have negative consequences. People may be more inclined to cover up wrongdoing and issues, particularly when the organization is steeped in family loyalty.
The “family” trope often abuses employees and can create situations where people are expected to give to the point of exhaustion. It creates situations of tolerating abuse happening to themselves and colleagues. People may have one-sided relationships or are expected to tolerate dysfunction that could easily be improved - but is not.
For some, “family” brings about happy thoughts of closeness, while for others, it elicits feelings of dysfunction and violence. Basically, a lot of baggage comes attached to the term.
Importantly, leadership taking the “family” standpoint is not only inappropriate, but also outdated. A real family does not have the same expectations that any variation on the definition of family does. Creating an alternative version that is a poor substitute even for a dysfunctional family simply cannot work effectively.
The family approach infantilizes employees and colleagues. It creates unhealthy relationships and stops the ability to build trust, engagement, and empowerment. While it is not necessarily impossible to have the family approach at work, it is more important to focus on creating a healthy workplace.
A more applicable paradigm is a workplace as a professional sports team.
This elicits an important discussion of inclusive ways to refer to groups. Two key priorities in addressing groups are:
Avoiding gender-based terms (for example, “hey guys”)
Avoiding problematic terms rooted in cultural appropriation (for example, “this is my tribe” when referring to any non-Native/Indigenous group or, as a different example, “my clan”)
Replacements for these range from “everyone” and “team” to “folx,” “lovelies,” and “earthlings.” Particularly for social media personalities or other online-based cohorts, creating a term for the group is common. Often, this may turn into merchandise or other appearance on social media branding.
Gender-neutral and non-appropriating replacements may be more aligned with the goal of the group, like “writers” for a writing group, “adventurers” for an outdoor exploration group, or “connoisseurs” for a local wine group. Family may even work in some of these situations in “my book club family” or other non-workplace situations. Purpose-driven or more focused terms can create that situation without exploitation.
Belonging and inclusion are essential. Family may or may not be the way to do it.
Well, maybe for some the workplace is a family. One that is designed to be as dysfunctional and abusive as actual relatives. If that is the goal, then yes, it seems that a workplace can be exactly like a family.