“We’re a family here!”

How many times have you heard that from your boss? Or perhaps even the CEO of your company? I’ve heard it at nearly every company I’ve worked for. And I’ve worked for a lot.

It’s A Trap 

Tom Hardy in Mad Max shaking his head no, “that’s bait”

(I considered the Star Wars meme, but I like this one better.)

What do you call a familial relationship in which one person controls another’s financial security in order to gain compliance?

At best, toxic, and dare I say, abusive.

And yet, that’s exactly the dynamic at play in an employer-employee relationship. It’s really only a healthy relationship when both sides understand that it’s transactional and that the employee is a service provider and the employer is the client. When companies start using the family metaphor, it sets up a culture that can very easily slip into exploitation by fostering a sense of loyalty from employees that’s not reciprocated in this day and age.

In its worst incarnation, it’s used to exploit workers. People tend to go to lengths for their family that they wouldn’t go to for others, and are more easily convinced to do things for family. This makes it easy to guilt employees into working more hours, taking on more work, and not feeling like they can say no – even to something unethical or even illegal.

The Familial Relationship Isn’t Conditional 

Or at least, it shouldn’t be. A family whose love is conditional is toxic, too.

The employer-employee relationship is inherently conditional – you do the work I need you to do, to the standard I need you to do it, and I pay you an agreed-upon amount of money, let you use the insurance I was able to negotiate as a group entity and cover some amount more on top, and other not-totally-monetary payments – and that’s okay.

Some relationships are allowed to be transactional, or to be conditional. It’s okay for the employee-employer relationship to be one of those, and for both parties to be honest about that. The transactional and conditional nature of the relationship isn’t inherently toxic, it becomes so when the people involved forget that, or if one party deliberately obfuscates it. In fact, it’s healthier to be honest about that fact, because it allows for better clarity around boundaries (of course, undermining those boundaries is half the point of the rhetoric from toxic companies).

Employment Isn’t Permanent 

Even if you’re one of the lucky few who starts a job at 18 and stays in it until you retire, eventally, the employee-employer relationship will come to an end (hopefully before you die). In this day and age, it’s far more typical for that relationship to end far sooner.

Something I’ve noticed in my last layoff is that I got over what happened far more quickly than most of the other coworkers that I’ve kept in touch with. And while several of them were laid off for the first time (the first time’s always the worst), I can’t help but wonder if part of it was because they bought into the “we’re a family” thing. I’ve been laid off several times at this point, and one of the things that was different for me this time around was that I explicitly refused to buy into the “we’re a family” rhetoric.

I don’t fault them for it. It’s easy to buy into it, especially with how pervasive the notion is in our society. When you work closely with people for most of your day, you form bonds and even friendships. The friendships between coworkers is immensely impactful and if you’re fortunate enough to forge friendships that last beyond the workplace, there’s a ton of value in that. But relationships among coworkers is different from the relationship with the employer and the company as a whole.

Companies Are Not Loyal To Their Workers 

For better or worse, companies do not give loyalty to their workers. Though there may have been a time where companies would invest more in their employees than they do now, it’s worth remembering that we have literally fought wars over corporate exploitation. The prominence of former University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman and his Friedman Doctrine, which for decades taught that a company’s only moral responsibility is to its shareholders (and not the other stakeholders, including its own workers), has exacerbated this anti-worker behavior thanks to how entrenched it has become in US economics and business.

This means the loyalty our culture pressures workers to put into companies is entirely one-sided, and no amount of giving more loyalty to a company is going to change that.

So What, Instead? 

At this point, I’m starting to feel like a broken record. Really, it all comes down to the fact that the “we’re a family” rhetoric opens the door for toxic and even abusive employee-employer relationships and worker exploitation. It’s a trap that plays on people’s emotions to manipulate them into giving more to the company than what’s owed and to get workers to give up their power.

Thankfully, there’s a better word for my workplace relationship with my coworkers that doesn’t inherently undermine the reality of employer-employee relations – team.

That doesn’t mean unscrupulous managers or companies won’t try to exploit the team dynamic to manipulate workers (who hasn’t dealt with the “not a team player” criticism when trying to enforce a work boundary?). Such people will appeal to humans’ cooperative nature no matter what word we use to describe it. However, remembering that this is a team in the context of a broader transactional and conditional relationship can help to remind us that it is okay to say no to too much work, or to negotiate having other work taken away to free up energy for the new work, in service of keeping healthy boundaries that allow you to uphold your side of the deal.