Let’s Talk About Bullying and Harassment in Family Business

Family businesses are unique, and the line between family relationships and business interests can easily blur. What may be expected and tolerated behavior in some family relationships, could be deemed bullying and harassment behavior in the workplace, especially when nonfamily member employees are involved. 

For example, you’ve received complaints from subordinates about the behavior of a family member manager. You feel nervous, you haven’t seen signs of the abuse, but you’ve also heard rumors for a while. The manager is your uncle and broaching the topic with him will no doubt lead to drama and there will be an argument. Then what? 

Knowing how to recognize and deal with the problem, will empower you to create change for the benefit of both your employees and your company. An unhealthy company culture that condones harassment by not addressing the problem, will cause the company to suffer. 

Workplace bullying and harassment will COST YOUR COMPANY in lost revenues.

Try this quick calculation to see what harassment could be costing your organization

Healthy Workplace System

What is Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace?

The Workplace Bullying Institute’s definition is, “Workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above.”

 3 forms of violence and harassment that can occur in the workplace

  1. Physical – physical force and attack such as punching, slapping, shooting
  1. Psychological – isolating, devaluing, attempts to humiliate and undermine an individual or group, mobbing, cyberbullying through informational technology
  1. Sexual – unwanted advances, comments, coercion, negative remarks about the sex of a person. 

Key Risk Factors to Your Business

Discrimination of persons vulnerable to bullying and harassment Inconsistent implementation of policies and procedures
Persons with disabilities
(mental and physical)
Ethnic minorities
Sexual orientation
Marital status
Decision-making biases and power differentials
Autocratic or laissez-faire leadership
Lack of change management support causes increased psychological pressures and stress
Rainmakers (high-value workers) get away with behaviors other employees would not

How does Bullying in a Family Business Affect Employees?

Recognize signs of distress in your employees and family members. Symptoms can include

  • Physical – headaches, tremors, nausea, unable to stop crying
  • Cognitive – poor concentration, memory problems, indecisiveness
  • Emotional – anxiety, shame, guilt, numbness, depression

The greater the frequency and duration of the bullying the greater the negative impact on employee health. This will result in decreased productivity, sick leave, staff resigning from the company, low morale, and tense relationships which result in lost revenues.

How to Combat Bullying with Solutions for Employees

  1. Build a healthy workplace culture. This culture provides psychological safety where there is no risk of embarrassment, rejection, or punishment for speaking up, and includes the freedom to work without fear. 
  1. Create policies and processes to prevent and manage bullying if it occurs. 
  1. Train staff about the policies and what to do if they experience or recognize harassment in the workplace.
  1. Document incidents including the behaviors, time, and location they occurred, and note witnesses. 
  1. Have a conversation. Get to know your employees, quietly observe, show an interest in their lives and aspirations, and be approachable. A healthy relationship builds trust, and with trust, employees will feel safe to confide in you. 
  1. One-on-one coaching. Bring in a trained professional if your employees experience workplace bullying. Coaches can assist with developing solutions, provide psychological and emotional support and assist in rebuilding confidence.

Conclusion & Takeaways

Workplace bullying seriously impacts both the mental and physical health of employees and costs the company money. This occurs through lost revenue, increased expenses, top talent who won’t put up with the situation leave, and lost employee productivity and work time. Assess your family business, recognize what bullying and harassment are and how to prevent them from occurring in your family business.

Looking for more resources? Check out our recommended list of resources below.

Need help drafting policies and procedures?

Are you dealing with bullying claims in your company?

I can guide and support you in managing the situation to prevent further harm to your company and employees. Connect with me for a Discovery Call to discuss your specific needs.



International Labour Organization

Workplace Bullying Institute

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

US Government (2022).  Labor Laws and Issues – Discrimination and Harassment at Your Job.

Government of Canada (2022). Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.





Wendy Dickinson

About the Author

Wendy Dickinson is the founder of Ascend Coaching Solutions LLC, a coaching firm that specializes in working with business owners and executives who plan to expand their leadership capacity as their business grows.

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