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When a family member and non-family employee are like oil and water

Barb Dartt for Progressive Dairyman Published on 28 September 2018

Bob, the dairy’s general manager (GM), came into Cliff’s office and said, “It’s bad, Cliff. This just isn’t going to work anymore. Either he goes, or I go.”

Cliff was the owner of the dairy business. And the “he” Bob referred to? That was Cliff’s son, Dave.



How did it get to this place, where a 12-year veteran employee who had a key role in the dairy’s success would rather leave the job he enjoyed than continue to work with a family employee?

This is not an unusual situation. In my experience, this challenge (a deep conflict between productive, valued employees) requires two elements to arise. The first is a lack of clarity and leadership from the senior generation. The second requirement is time.

Let’s use the situation above to illustrate these two elements. First, Bob, the GM, had been unclear about Dave’s role. Dave leads the cropping operation. Bob believed Dave was responsible for three things: ensuring quality forage was available to the dairy all year, keeping crop and dairy equipment maintained and repaired, and removing manure.

Dave believed his job included the quality forage and removing manure components – but keeping the dairy equipment maintained and repaired was certainly not within his job duties, in his mind.

The “dairy guys” had a nasty habit of wrecking the same gates (over and over) and not watching for oil changes or routine maintenance on their skid steers. Dave returned to the family business four years ago. From the point of his return, he had the assumption he was not responsible for dairy equipment.


Cliff, the owner, talked with his son Dave, the crop manager, about the discrepancy – within six months of him coming on board. Dave said he’d do a better job on dairy equipment maintenance. Nothing changed.

Bob, the GM, talked to Cliff within nine months of his son coming on board about the difference in opinion over Dave’s role. Cliff, the owner, listened to Bob’s concern, could see both sides and didn’t relish what he perceived would be a tough conversation … so he delayed the requested conversation with his son.

In this, the earliest of discussions over the conflict, a couple failures occurred.

  • First, Cliff didn’t designate who his son reported to. Was the owner (Cliff) or the GM (Bob) responsible to provide feedback and ongoing monitoring of Dave’s work?

  • Second, Cliff did not act as a result of his discussion with his GM, Bob, about Dave’s performance. He could have taken several different actions. He could have asked Bob to decide on Dave’s role (does it include dairy equipment repair or not?) and asked Bob to communicate the decision.

    He could have made the decision himself and then communicated it clearly to both Bob and Dave. Cliff could have acted as a facilitator between Bob and Dave, asking them to jointly make the decision around whose role includes dairy equipment maintenance.

None of these scenarios happened. Months flew by. Dave was well into his second year of employment. The conflict continued. Bob, the GM, made do and tried to engage Dave in some discussions. Dave wouldn’t participate in solving the issue and actually bad-mouthed the dairy employees to his own cropping team. Animosity grew between the dairy and crop crews.

Bob, the GM, tried again to engage Cliff, the owner, in solving this challenge near the end of Dave’s second year in the family business. Cliff reluctantly agreed to have a meeting among the three. The meeting ended up fulfilling Cliff’s worst expectations.

At first, Dave wouldn’t talk to Bob. When he did, he was disrespectful. The meeting lasted about 20 minutes and ended up being more divisive than helpful.


In this discussion, additional failures occurred.

  • Now that over two years passed without clarity around to whom Dave is responsible, he has gotten comfortable with some bad habits. He’s not being respectful to peers and isn’t helping his cropping team think of themselves as part of a larger team that serves the dairy business in total.

    Since no one knew if it was Cliff or Bob’s responsibility to provide feedback, Dave hasn’t gotten any.

  • Second, Cliff had failed to gain the competencies he needed to effectively lead a discussion between Bob and Dave. Most folks learn these skills; they are not born with them.

Given this progression of events, it may now be clear why, after four years of Dave’s employment, Bob is throwing in the towel. He feels stuck in the middle of Cliff, an unresponsive business owner; and Dave, his disrespectful crop manager who also happens to be Cliff’s son.

What could have turned this situation around? Below are a few steps senior-generation business leaders should take as next-generation (next gen) family employees return to the business. A couple assumptions underlie these steps – if one or both of these assumptions aren’t true, they could also be contributing to your “oil and water” situation.

First, I will assume your next gen was invited to return because the business needs their valuable skills (and not just their labor). Second, I am assuming the business is either big enough to accommodate the next gen’s compensation or the next gen came along with a growth plan the business has committed to.

If the assumptions above are true, start here, senior-generation leaders.

1. Clearly assign responsibility so your family member can be become a high-performing employee

  • Create a clear role for your new family employee. Let them know what they are responsible for and what expected performance looks like. Talk about things like work hours, weekend duty, pay and how they get a raise as well as behaviors like how they are expected to treat other employees – both family and non-family.

  • Identify their direct supervisor – to both your family employee and their supervisor.

  • Some folks recommend a job description at this point. This is a “nice-to-have” addition. Typical job descriptions don’t include quite enough detail (e.g., pay expectations) and don’t substitute for actually having the conversation with your next gen.

2. Clearly set expectations with the family employee’s supervisor

  • What kind of training is the supervisor expected to provide? How often? Do you want the supervisor to share technical knowledge and their know-how with people? Get detailed on your vision for how the supervisor is going to grow your next-gen family employee.

  • What kind of feedback is the supervisor expected to provide? And what and when do you want to know about the next gen’s performance?

  • Plan for and communicate how you’ll handle the inevitable situation when the next gen bypasses their direct supervisor and goes directly to you for a decision. How will you support your new, talented employee and honor the direct relationship between the supervisor and your family employee?

    If you get sucked in the first time (meaning: you answer your family employee’s question without engaging the supervisor in the discussion), you have set a dangerous precedent that will undermine the family employee’s growth and development, and the supervisor’s belief you’ve got his or her back.

3. Build your skills

  • Consider taking some supervisory training yourself – and offering it to the supervisor of your family employee. As I mentioned above, very few folks are born with the skills required to effectively hold difficult conversations. And yet this ability has a huge impact on you and your team’s job satisfaction as well as the potential continuity of your business.

And what if the “oil and water” situation has gone too far and you are where Bob, Cliff and Dave find themselves? The same process can be modified to help. Start with No. 3 and build your skills. You likely will need an adviser to help gather input from key parties and assist in formulating a plan. That adviser can then help with implementation of No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 over time.

Clearly communicating expectations – whenever it is you realize they are muddy – provides the environment in which family and non-family employee both have a chance to be successful. As the senior-generation business leader, you have both the authority and the responsibility to take this job on.  end mark


Barb Dartt
  • Barb Dartt

  • Consultant
  • The Family Business Consulting Group
  • Email Barb Dartt