family metaphors

Your company isn’t a family. Every time I hear someone describe their workplace as a family, it’s a red flag. It means one of two things.

The first option is that it’s using the concepts of guilt & loyalty to squeeze its workers for everything they can: nights & weekends, personal lives, relationships, and personal health. Maybe they’re not doing it right now, but they’ve set the mindset trap. In case of emergency, they will absolutely break that glass.

The second option is the leadership hasn’t had enough experience and is either blissfully unaware of the first option or doesn’t think it’s a big deal. They earnestly want to communicate that they care about their workers, but they grabbed the first metaphor they saw on the shelf to express that sentiment.

The term they want is “community”.


  • Are related by blood or personal, two-way vows of commitment.
  • You usually have little say in membership, which is life-long or dissolves dramatically.
  • Usually involve unspoken expectations of loyalty and assistance, and often folks are keeping score.


  • Exist mostly voluntarily based on shared geography or interest.
  • You decide how deeply you want to be involved in it.
  • Are transparently oriented toward a greater good without anyone keeping score.

When you call your workplace a “family” you bring a lot of baggage for a lot of folks for whom it doesn’t mean the same thing. If they, say, get fired unexpectedly, it’s a very jarring experience that results in bitterness because of the implicit promise of loyalty.

Be transparent. These folks are here at-will and on a contractual basis. You can be kind and nurturing to your employees and coworkers without misleading them about the nature of the organization or their place in it. I understand the intent, but this term misses the mark in a big way.

Leaders who watch people become disillusioned or heartbroken by their metaphors and are deeply sad about it but don’t take the opportunity to fix how they are communicating with the rest of their organization are doing them and their employees a grave disservice. The words exist. The transparency is possible. It requires commitment and courage to get it right.