Preparing for 2020

By Barbara Spector

The fourth quarter is packed with occasions when the extended family gets together. In addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hanukkah, families who own businesses are likely to gather at the company holiday party.

As anyone with a family knows, all that togetherness can cause family tension, especially during a season when meals and decorations are expected to be perfect and memories of the past — for better or worse — are evoked.

With a presidential election on the horizon next year, friction is likely to be heightened. Families all over America have been arguing about politics since 2016. Business families are no exception.

Politically divided families are nothing new, of course. Differences of opinion about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, for example, sparked many a family fight. But in the age of social media, family disagreements you’d prefer to keep private can easily go viral.

Arguing with your relatives around the dinner table can ruin the family’s holiday. Taking the argument public is quite another matter — it has the potential to harm the business.

Examining what happened in some business families in 2016 might help your family to strategize about how to handle the next campaign — before it’s time to put your pumpkin pie in the oven.

One family I know of (probably not the only one) engaged a family business consultant to help them work through the divisions that had arisen in their ranks because of the election.

Some business families presented a united front in favor of a candidate. Several even offered up company facilities for campaign events.

Other family businesses stayed out of politics. But in some of those families, rogue relatives proclaimed their support for one of the sides. Even though these people didn’t work in the business, the public recognized their last name. Consumers on the other side of the aisle called for a boycott and posted heated messages on the company Facebook page. Though executives insisted the company was politically neutral, the business got caught in the crossfire.

However you decide to handle the next election, it will be best for everyone if you make your decision as a family and make it in advance. If you want your business to be perceived as neutral, has everyone in the extended family gotten that message? Do they all promise to stick with the program?

If you decide to support a candidate, how would family members feel if there were a boycott? Would this ignite a family dispute that could result in a shareholder exit, or worse?

Would your board or shareholders agree to budget for a PR strategist if needed? Would it make sense to have a statement prepared in advance so it can be issued immediately if necessary?

Whatever your political differences, keep your shared family values in mind. That might help everyone stay calm and grounded.

I wish you a peaceful holiday season.

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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Issue: 
November/December 2019

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