Once again, I’m struck by a recent column by Roxane Gay, the New York Times “Work Friend,” who gives workplace advice. I wrote about her advice last year and it seemed to have struck a chord with many.
This past Sunday, she answered the following question from an employee at a small electronics company. I was taken with her assertion: “Your CEO is behaving very unprofessionally.”
When You’re Here, You’re Family
For the past four years, I have been an executive at a small electronics company. While I am treated well and mostly enjoy my work, I would like a change, so I have been confidentially applying and interviewing for new positions. From the beginning of my time at this company, the C.E.O. has been very warm and open socially, and has organized many events involving work colleagues and their families. My wife and I have gotten to know the C.E.O.’s wife and teenage children, and I have even taken advantage of this atmosphere to arrange temporary employment for a few of my family members. Over the past year, the C.E.O. has started to refer to the company as a “family,” even referring to a recent hire as falling in love with us.
The other day, the C.E.O. told me that he felt betrayed by a former employee who left after giving appropriate notice but without first telling him that he was interviewing. He made it very clear that he expected “family” members to tell him if they are interviewing.
I do expect to be successful in the coming months in my search for a new job, and since I have no employment contract, I am, like most U.S. workers, free to leave or be terminated at any time. In the past, I have handled these transitions by giving appropriate notice after accepting a new offer, wrapping up my responsibilities, typically attending a send-off at a local bar or restaurant and remaining on good terms. I want to avoid any ugliness when I do give notice, so I am wondering how I should communicate with the C.E.O. during the remainder of my time at this company.
Roxane Gay: Just because your C.E.O. thinks your company is a family does not make it so. Your job is your job and your family is your family. I love a collegial workplace where people feel valued and respected and where people can socialize outside of work. That is ideal and should be the norm, though it isn’t. But professional collegiality still isn’t family, nor should it be. When employers suggest that the company is a family, they’re trying to garner your emotional investment so that you overlook everything else. When it’s time for layoffs, I can assure you that the word “family” will disappear from the company vernacular.
Your C.E.O. is behaving very unprofessionally. If he feels betrayed when an employee gives proper notice and moves on to a new position, that’s a personal problem he should work out with a therapist. This bizarre emotional transference he is foisting on his staff is inappropriate. You do not have to let your employer know you are looking for new work because, unfortunately, far too many employers will retaliate when hearing such news. For now, communicate with the C.E.O. as you normally do because you have nothing to report. Continue with your job search, and when you secure a new position, give ample notice, participate generously in any transition work that needs to happen and move on with a clear conscience.
I find this interesting because there’s a difference between saying “your CEO is acting unfairly” and the judgement call, “your CEO is behaving very unprofessionally.”
Breaking from the Past
Not too many years ago, this type of CEO behavior was common practice. At small companies, especially, the leader who “organized many events involving work colleagues and their families” actually felt as though he was creating a sense of family. He may have been delusional, but because he was dedicating his life (and perhaps his family’s life) to his work, he often expected the same of his executives.
Now, Roxane Gay is declaring a sea-change in how a CEO should act. Today’s CEOs should understand that the roles of employer and employee are not blurred into a sense of “family.” They are transactional.
And while, as she says, it’s great to have “a collegial workplace where people feel valued and respected and where people can socialize outside of work,” that does not translate into a sense of “emotional investment,” or what is often called loyalty.
The CEO who expects loyalty or emotional ties from his staff, in return for a collegial atmosphere, is not only wrong, s/he is being unprofessional (according to Gay). If that’s the new normal, it translates further down the management food chain, too.
For example, if you have a wonderful boss, that’s great. But that doesn’t mean your boss should expect you to have an emotional investment in the company. Or to be loyal to him or her, or the organization.
If, as an employee, you have some ownership in the company, your feelings might be different. But if you’re not an owner – you’re an employee – you shouldn’t be expected to have any emotional ties to the company. After all, as Roxane notes, “when it’s time for layoffs, …the word ‘family’ will disappear from the company vernacular.”
Do you manage a team? Or are you part of a team?
If you answered yes to either question, note that the line has been drawn in the sand. As a manager with direct reports, you can’t assume any emotional ties to the job and, to go one step further, it would be unprofessional of you to hint that there should be.
As an individual contributor, you shouldn’t feel any emotional ties or loyalties other than to yourself and your real family.
Are you struggling to manage a team now? Or on a team that’s not working well? If so, reach out and let’s talk!