Darryl Stewart
By Darryl Stewart
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When a colleague mistreats his or her own child on staff

What would you do in this tough leadership situation? Would you do anything at all?

I was recently asked by a mid-level manager – let’s call him Steve – for some advice. He worked alongside another supervisor – let’s call him Brian – guiding a team of 20. Steve and Brian shared the same boss.

The trouble started when Brian hired his teenage son to join the team.

Right away things became problematic. Brian often talked to his son in a disrespectful tone, scolding him publicly for even the smallest infraction. The trigger was often trivial – things that other staff get away with every day, like not breaking down empty boxes as soon as they are unpacked. This behaviour had the whole team on edge and it put Steve and Brian at odds with each other. Performance and morale suffered all around.

Steve had already brought this up with their mutual boss, but the boss was afraid to take action. He did not want to be seen as critical of the parenting style of one of his supervisors and did not see it as his role.

Steve was thinking of talking with Brian directly, but was unsure if he should and, if he did, wasn’t sure what to say. So he asked for my advice.

My advice to Steve was based on the leadership lessons of Linton Sellen. Sellen talks of the significant responsibility that comes with leadership: acting in a way that demonstrates character and wisdom; taking the well-being of your staff seriously; and modelling the behaviour you wish to see in others. This is clearly not happening in the case of Brian and his son. Sellen talks about this very type of situation where role confusion has entered the workplace causing people to act out of character.

In this case, the role of dad is being confused with the role of supervisor. Brian is treating his son differently from all the other staff, and acting totally out of character in the workplace. If he treated any other staff person like this, he would be sanctioned and the behaviour would be stopped immediately by the organization. In this case, because it is his own son, everyone is confused about what to do and unwilling to intervene, thinking they would be criticizing Brian’s parenting.

In the absence of intervention by the boss, my advice to Steve was to indeed have a talk directly with Brian. Be as non-confrontational as possible, I advised, but point out the specific behaviour and the fact that “if either of us did that with any of the other staff, we would be in trouble, right?” Explain to Brian that his behaviour with his son is upsetting the workplace.

If there is no improvement after a few calm and caring attempts at this discussion, then my advice would be to go to the boss again. Use the same explanations and give specific examples of unacceptable behaviour to help make the point.

If after several reasoned and professional attempts the boss takes no action, the next step is to go over his head. Loyalty to your direct supervisor needs to be put aside when he or she decides not to address illegal, immoral, unethical, abusive, or dangerous behaviour.

One important disclaimer on all of this advice is that there is no guarantee that doing the right thing will lead to optimal outcomes. Steve’s discussion with Brian could fail as could the discussion with the mutual boss. And going over the boss’s head is even more fraught with danger. As Sellen taught me: “There is no guarantee that doing the right thing will turn out well.” That said, it is still worth your best effort to help build and sustain a safe and respectful workplace.

  1. The factor I see missing is , with regular employees work stops at the end of the day. with family, this can continue after work and at home. What the other supervisor does not see or hear is the after work relationship. sometimes the son will challenge or complain about the work that needs to be done after work. Sometimes the parent wants to make an example of the son so the rest of the staff sees what the son is able to do will also be expected of them.

    It is hard to separate the work relationship from the family relationship, and from my experience it is best to hand over supervision to another leader in the group. If that is impossible then the son may need to be put in a different group.

    As in everyday life, there are things a parent is perfectly good at teaching but the child will never learn because you are the parent.

    • It is hard to separate the roles for sure Rich. Linton’s main teaching in this area is that the underlying principle to our actions at work must be that we are the supervisor, not the parent. The parenting is at home and the supervising, the same way we would do it for anyone else, is at work.

      I really like your suggestion that the supervision be handed off when possible. This is a good practice.

      This example plays itself out on sports teams everywhere when parents are coaching their own kids. Same principles apply.