Q: I recently started working at my aunt’s company and later learned that another internal candidate wanted my position. This started rumors that I was only hired because I’m related to the CEO. I no longer feel comfortable with my colleagues and have started doubting myself. Is it a bad idea to work for family?
A: The only way to prove that you weren’t hired just because you’re the CEO’s relative is to do an outstanding job. Any time a family member is hired at an organization, there will be concerns, rumors, and complaints about perceived nepotism. As long as you don’t report directly to your aunt, and you recognize that all of the same cultural norms and rules of the organization that apply to your colleagues also apply to you—and you act that way—these rumors should pass.
Many people get their jobs through networking with friends, professional contacts, and yes, family—but networking via a family member often elicits suspicion or distrust within an organization. These feelings might occur for a number of reasons. People might believe that you can’t be fired for poor performance or that the same expectations they’re held to won’t apply to you. They may also worry that you know too much “inside information” and can make your colleagues look bad if you’re telling work stories to a senior leader over family dinner. To mitigate these concerns, you have to work hard at being a great colleague—and take care that your work stories are only about you and not your colleagues.
At this point, it’s on you to demonstrate confidence and generate a sense of comfort with your capabilities and colleagues. If you’ve been doubting yourself since these rumors began, you want to make sure you’re fully invested in learning as much about the business as you can so you can be as successful in your role as possible. Ask questions, offer to assist in other projects when you have the bandwidth, research the competition and other market data—when your colleagues see genuine interest, initiative, and dedication, they will understand that your hiring was based on your skill set and anticipated contributions, not your family ties.
In some ways, cultivating confidence and comfort among colleagues will always be a challenge. For better or worse, your coworkers may not feel totally open to speak their mind about certain things, whether it’s their disagreement over a decision senior leadership made or their perspective on certain situations within the company. If a slight reservation lingers on certain topics, if your colleagues can recognize that when it comes to the business, you are their coworker first and the niece of the owner second, they can learn to trust you.
You or others in your situation may have thought about downplaying—or flat out denying—your connection to the CEO. Lying to new colleagues is never a good start to a professional relationship, so while you don’t have to share that information on your first day, be honest if someone asks you directly. Don’t introduce yourself on your first day as the CEO’s relative or put on any airs about a presumed position of privilege; instead, be truthful without making the connection a bigger deal than it is. Many families intentionally bring relatives into the business in order to carry on generations of family ownership and management. To best position a family member for that role, the individual needs to learn the business from the ground up so they can really learn what the internal nuances and demands of the business are. These situations only become problems when the individual boasts about their privilege or treats anyone unfairly—it’s not good for morale and won’t engender positive working relationships among colleagues.
It’s a bad idea for people to hire a family member if the individual is not qualified to do the work, not willing or able to learn how to do the work, and generally just not interested in doing the work. This isn’t good for business or for coworker camaraderie. If you can take steps to demonstrate your skills and forge strong, trusting relationships with your colleagues, any lingering rumors or concerns about your qualifications will dissipate.