I recently facilitated a reconciliation meeting between a brother and sister-in-law. Since the relationship between the brothers was good, I wondered how did the relationship between the brother and sister-in-law go sour? The sister-in-law was admittedly harboring bitterness toward her husband’s older brother because of her perception of how her husband was being treated in the family’s business. 

Typically, siblings in business go home from work and talk about the day’s events, which may often include struggles between the siblings. Then, the sibling goes back to work the next day and resolves the issue, but doesn’t bother to tell their spouse the issue was resolved. As a result, a bitter root takes hold and begins to grow, and consequently, the in-law gets blamed. 

An upset spouse can tear down a sibling partnership, while a happy spouse can encourage and build up its strength. Follow these guidelines to keep in-laws from becoming out-laws: 

  1. Make every effort to make in-laws feel welcome in the family. Families in business are notorious for becoming closed systems. They all interact in the business together and can easily get caught up talking business at home making the in-laws feel like they are outsiders. 
  2. As best as possible, separate family from business. Don’t talk business around the Sunday dinner table. It’s tacky and indicates you’re a person of limited interests and perhaps a workaholic. 
  3. Settle your differences before you go home from work. Don’t take it home with you and dump it on your spouse. 
  4. If your relationships are reasonably healthy, include in-laws in family business meetings. In-laws often get blamed for causing problems because they don’t understand the family business. As an example, most people don’t understand how a business can make a million bucks and not have any cash to distribute. Plus, all they ever hear about the business is often from their spouse’s perspective – a one dimensional view. 
  5. Clarify and document the role in-laws may play in the business. As a part of your family’s employment policies make sure to address in-laws. Are they allowed to work in the business? What perks, if any, may they enjoy? Covering these issues overtly, keeps the in-laws from becoming out-laws. I once witnessed a knock-down, drag-out between three brothers because one of their wives was using a cell phone being paid for by the business. 
  6. Develop individual relationships with the in-laws. If a problem develops in your relationship with an in-law, deal with it directly. 
  7. Consider requiring prenuptial agreements. This is solely to protect business related assets. 
  8. Make sure business interests are protected from in-laws in the event of a divorce. Shareholder agreements should cover all contingencies not just death. 

Remember, the best way to maintain influence with in-laws is to draw them closer to you. Doing so will help alleviate the tension that in-law relationships can bring to the sibling partnership

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