Mind the Gap – Managing Employees Older Than You in a Family Business

It can feel awkward and intimidating for a younger manager to manage older employees.

It usually happens sooner in a family firm because children often move rapidly through the ranks before other non-family employees. They are usually on a fast track and often skip through middle management. Some may even enter at the top management level.

1. Perception

From the start, a young family member entering the family business can already be at a big disadvantage.

Non-family employees, especially older employees, may perceive your fast track as unfair and a form of entitlement. It can be hard to shake this perception if your career path is not handled properly.

Also unique to a family business is that these older employees have watched you grow up either in the business or outside in your early personal life. They have already formed opinions of you in most cases. Most of these employees will accept you, while others may try to take advantage of you and “test” you.


2. The Path You Lead to Managing Them Makes a Big Difference

In our family business, I began working around 12 years old after school and summers.

I began working full-time during my second year of college. When I began working full-time, I worked in a separate small division with very few employees for several years. It served almost like a bridge between being a kid working after school and a more serious career position within the company. After shaking off the younger child stigma, I entered the business from the lowest level position and worked my way up. Working in all functional areas of the business helped me gain experience and working alongside others helped me to develop relationships with other employees. More importantly, together they helped me to have a more balanced understanding of how future changes impacted both the employee and the business. When others realize you understand how change is going to affect them, they genuinely accept you more.


3. Set the Example

Often there is a perception that family members are lazy, entitled and take advantage of their last name

You can avoid this stigma by setting the example and working harder than others. Showing them you are putting in the extra effort, working longer hours, working weekends, taking less vacation can quickly put these concerns to rest. This actually was probably the most important thing I did to gain their acceptance.


4. Avoid the “Junior Executive” Label

Try to keep the relationship with older employees on a closer level by working with them, not above them.

Try not to come off as the expert with all the answers. Genuinely involve them in your decision making by asking for their opinion often. Help them realize their experience is important and something you depend on them for. This will help you be perceived as less of a threat and they will accept you more quickly and be more cooperative.


5. Leverage Your Advantages as a Family Member – Knowledge is Power

  • Skill-Develop skills and be competent. If others know you are competent they are less likely to be critical
  • Confidence – Being a family member you have been informally learning about the family business from an early age.
  • Knowledge– being a family member on the inner circle gives you privileged inside information on future strategy and direction of the business. Knowledge is powerful.
  • Experience– Following a more traditional career path alongside other employees helps how you are perceived by others. Work your way up from the bottom and be visible in each level of the company. Older employees will respect you more if they know you have experience.


It’s All About Confidence

Gaining confidence through experience is the single biggest thing you can do towards being perceived well by others and avoiding the stigma of entitlement.