“Should I tell my family-business employer I am looking for a new job?”

Question: I am currently working with a third generation family business. I’ve been there 17 years without a signed employee contract. The problem is this: I have approached a direct competitor for a job because I am getting a slow process of feedback from all my attempts to enhance my career, and my financial constraints can’t wait.

Should I inform my employer of my discussions with their competitor to avoid burning bridges?

Durban, South Africa

Answer: Dear Alan: Your circumstances and your question both bring to mind many lessons learned the hard way by my clients over the years. I would like to share with you the most important lessons, and in this way answer your question:

1. Working for a “family business” can be both extra rewarding and extra risky. Businesses that are family-owned and/or family-operated present special considerations. First, those who own family businesses often treat their employees in an enhanced “family” way, that is, with extra concern and compassion for the families of their employees. I’ve seen extraordinarily kind and generous gestures made by owners of family businesses. Second, family-owned businesses do not have independent Boards of Directors, but rather Board Members who sometimes care only about family issues, but who also sometimes think most about family grudges, family slights and other negative aspects of family history. Further, those who leave family-owned businesses are often seen with a sense of great disloyalty, because they have not betrayed a person, or a company, but a family, and that kind of betrayal is often never forgotten.

Most importantly, you must always remember that – unless you marry a daughter or somehow get yourself adopted by grandma– you will never, ever, ever be a member of the family, with any or all of the positive or negative things that connotes.

2. As a non-family employee, your aspirations and expectations must always be limited. Chances are, you will never rise to a position of supervision or management, if any family member, or a son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin, in-law or grandchild might want that position. Likewise, if you disagree with, or are treated unjustly or illegally by, a family member, no matter whether or not you are “right,” you will always be “wrong.” Are there exceptions or limitations to that? Sure, but they are few and far between. And, too, hopes and dreams about becoming highly compensated or even a partial owner of your family-owned employer are not at all likely to come true.

3. If you have been upfront and clear about your needs and desires, and they are not being sufficiently addressed, do not fear being accused of “burning bridges,” for you are doing nothing at all wrong. Family members should be “loved” just because they are family members. But employers and employees must each earn the “love” of the other, by good, honest fair and loyal treatment. Employment is a business proposition of sorts. Sure, you may be friends or more with your employers, but in its essence, employment is a business relation, and it requires sufficient business satisfaction – on both sides – in order to continue to work. If you have asked, and not received, you have done nothing wrong in seeking a different employer.

Might your employers feel you have been “disloyal” or “burned bridges” by going to work for a direct competitor? Sure they might, but that would be their error, their failing, and their loss. Even if you did not go to a direct competitor, just leaving might make some members of your employer’s family upset, angry and jealous. Focus on whether you are being fair and honest, not whether others will be upset that you are taking good care of yourself and your own family.

Your own family comes before their family. Period. As it should be.

4. Please, Alan, do NOT inform your employer of your discussions until, at the very least, you have a firm, written offer of employment from the competitor, and preferably a written contract that provides employment for at least one year. There have been many times in my career that clients have told me that they had done what you seem to be considering – letting their employers know they are discussing employment with another employer. I think that in each such case, my client has regretted doing so.

Some have been fired on the spot. Some have been promised “the sun, the moon and the stars,” only to then have “the sun, the moon and the stars” never delivered, once they turned down the other job offer. Some have been made counter-offers to stay, only to be viewed as disloyal and with suspicion, and then fired at the most convenient time, that is, after their employer has had an opportunity to replace them. I cannot remember a single client who was happy he or she did what you are considering.

5. Instead, only after you have your new job offer firm in hand, clear and committed to hiring you on terms and conditions you want, should you even mention the possibility of your leaving to your present employer. We sometimes refer to the phrase “positional leverage.” By this we mean to express that an employee’s “position” affects – up or down – how much he or she has leverage to get what he or she wants.

As examples: If you have a firm, unconditional and positive offer in hand, then it will take your present employer doing the same to keep you.

On the other hand, if you are fired from your present job, and you don’t yet have a new position that is firm, unconditional and positive, then your prospective employer can give you less of what it is you want.

Here’s the message: “Always seek solid ground before taking a long leap.” (Yes, I just made that up.) Your position can determine – for better or worse – your leverage, so always seek the strongest position before bringing about risk or change.

6. If you have been honest, give reasonable advance notice, and don’t do anything dishonest, immoral or illegal, you have not “burned a bridge,” no matter who may feel abandoned or let down. In the end, Alan, we must all live with ourselves. When you wake up in the morning, it is your face that you will find looking back at you in the mirror. When you put your head on your pillow at night it is your view of yourself that you will sleep on.

By seeking better opportunity and reward from a different employer, if you do it with integrity, you are not burning a bridge, but only crossing a bridge, hopefully to a sweeter life.

For great info and insight, consider viewing our 12-minute Sklover-On-Demand Video entitled “Resigning Your Job: The 21 Necessary Precautions.” To do so, just [click here. ]

Also, you might be interested in obtaining a copy of either my 100-Point Checklist for Resigning from Your Job [click here] or my “Ultimate Guide to Resigning from Your Job.” [click here.] They are both so helpful.

From one Alan to another Alan, from New York to Durban, you have our best hope that your employment transition goes well, and that you get all you wish, want and deserve from your next employment relation.

Very Best,

Al Sklover

P.S.: Know someone facing job loss, Bully Boss, or retaliation? Do them a favor: mention our blog site to them. Compassion is where it all starts, where it all ends, and where it all is. That is what this blog site is all about.

© 2012 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.