When asked to describe a company, the CEO will almost invariably give us an ingratiating smile and say, “We’re a family.”
Employees are also tempted by the metaphor, and in happier moments, they will enthuse, “this really is my family.”
The truth is painfully otherwise. The organization will use the employee as long as it suits and then jettison this employee without a flicker of remorse. And often not even so much as an explanation. One day you’re there. The next day you’re gone.
Try that with your family. “Dad, I’m sorry but you’re fired. Mom, you have to go too. We’re cutting back. What, no, of course we’re sorry. You’ve done a great job. But things change. We want you out of here by end of day. And we’re going to need your ID back. Hand it over.”
“Firing” and “family” never intersect in our culture. Ever.
I’m not complaining about the fact that people get fired. Organizations are good at getting things done precisely because we try to stock them with all but only the people they need.
I am complaining about this ugly “family” fiction. And it’s not just a problem of the group-think, conscious-bending, reality-concealing metaphor. (Though this should be objectionable on its own.)
I’m complaining about the use of the family metaphor to extract value from employees. Of course, you’ll give up your weekend, your vacation, your evenings and your personal lives. We’re a family! This is what families do for one another. When used for these manipulative, value boosting purposes, the metaphor is no longer merely malicious, it’s now a deliberate, exploitative, lie.
So Mr. Smarty Pants Anthropologist, what’s the alternative? I think it’s to define the corporation the way we do a graduate or professional school.
The first assumption is that you the employee are passing through. You will learn from what you do here, and move on. You will work heroically hard but that’s because you are working to improve and get better. As you do at a graduate or professional school.
We will treat you decently because, well, you are passing through. And you will go out into the world, and speak ill or well of us. You will help recruit the next class. Or you won’t. In fact, in a perfect world, you will pass through several jobs and return us.
The important thing is that superordinates are encouraged to understand the real relationship they have with a subordinate. This person is not a member of a family. This is not an enduring relationship. We’re not “all in this together.” Someday this relationship will end. And we hope you will be better for it, not used up by it. That’s in a sense is what we are here for.
This doesn’t create a symmetrical relationship, nor should it, but it could help discourage the practice of giving employees big, friendly hugs…while rummaging through their personal effects.
This is a library at the University of Chicago, blanket like, but covered in snow. Now that’s a metaphor.
Thomas Stewart has a wonderful essay on the “team” metaphor in Fortune here.