Succession planning takes a business owner in many directions. Not all families have natural successors, and not all family members are cut out to work in a family business. Furthermore, in many circumstances business owners desire to supplement the finances of unemployed family members. Therefore, I am commonly asked what to do about employing in-laws. My common answer is to tread carefully; hiring an in-law is a big deal and a complex undertaking.  

The primary complication of hiring an in-law is that you can’t treat them like a family member but you also can’t treat them like a common law employee. An in-law employee (ILE) can be a potential source of joy and satisfaction or reciprocally frustration, anxiety and pain. 

Employment of an in-law is a delicate matter because regardless of how long your child has been married, you really do not know your in-law like you do your own children. You do not have a comfort level with their work ethic, values, priorities, sensitivities, fears, learning speed, etc. Therefore training, coaching and accountability become much more complicated. 

Hoping for the best outcome, you must treat them special. Be concerned about what you say and how you say it because until proven otherwise, you must assume that anything said or inferred to an ILE will be repeated to your child and amplified back to you. As the owner and leader, you are in a no-win funky family zone where you want to treat an in-law like a member of the family, but you understand in your heart they are not a family member. 

An ILE’s special status is further confirmed by the attitude they take towards you and the business. On the bright side, they can feel highly motivated and fortunate with a drive to go the extra mile, prove that they are worthy of the job, and through their actions say, “Thanks for the opportunity.”  In-laws who take this approach have the potential though to cross over to the dark side and go too far with their commitment attitude, having a chip on their shoulder and being driven to achieve recognition even at the expense of others. Having a workaholic member of the family typically disrupts management teamwork and family harmony. On the even darker side, an ILE can feel entitled not only to a job but also to titles, authority, recognition, time off and generous bonuses just because of who they are. 

To seal the deal regarding the potential complications associated with hiring in-laws, you can be sure that employees will treat them special. Managers tend to view them as radioactive as they understand that they run a high risk of getting burned through any form of contact with an in-law. No one wants to be on the black list of the owner’s child. No one wants to alienate an ILE that one day through enablement may become their boss.  The assumption most managers make is that it’s better for them to patronize an ILE versus spending a fair amount of time training and coaching them. The potential headaches associated with heavy interaction with an ILE don’t outweigh the potential rewards in a manager’s mind. 

Before you jump at hiring an in-law, it is best to understand this special standing and the delicate challenges associated with training and managing an employee who is the spouse of your child and parent of your grandchildren.

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