The Risks in Employing Your Kid for the Summer

By Stan Luxenberg

Parents who own businesses might seem to have an easy solution to the kids' summer employment problem. Employing children in the family business, however, can pose a delicate dilemma, and the stakes involved in a summer position may be especially high.

A good summer experience may persuade the next generation to carry on the business. Parents and children may learn that they can really work together. Those children who believe they want to join the firm can begin obtaining valuable training. If the job does not go smoothly, though, parents and children may bear scars that last for years.

For parents who want to recruit children, the best approach may be the soft sell. A clinical psychologist who counsels family businesses, Mark H. Lewin, says that pressuring a child to work in the business actually may be counterproductive. Children should be told they are expected to do some work, but given choices. "You can tell the child he can work in a restaurant or a summer camp, or if he wants he can work for the family," Lewin says.

As a 12-year-old, Eric Voss spent his summer working at the stripping table, removing waste from folding cartons at Diamond Packaging, headed by his father, Harry. The youngster arrived home at night with sore muscles and paper cuts all over his hands. The experience gave him new respect for the company's 160 employees and persuaded the young man to seek a profession that did not involve manual labor. After majoring in economics at college, Eric joined the company's finance department and now runs the production and planning and customer service departments.

While performing simple tasks may help children learn something about the world of work, the summer experience can also provide a glimpse of the more exciting aspects of a business. Some experts urge parents to develop special projects that will motivate the child to become more involved in the business. A child can be asked to monitor competing retail outlets or conduct market research, suggests Nancy Bowman-Upton, director of Baylor University's Institute for Family Business.

Even sweeping floors or filing papers can be made meaningful if parents explain how the job fits into the overall operation. Parents seeking to attract the next generation into the business may want to set aside time every week to discuss operations.

Some owners work with their children to structure a more extended training program, starting youngsters off with menial tasks and advancing them each summer to more complicated jobs.

From hard experience, some business owners learn that children should not report directly to relatives if possible. Parents tend to be either too lax or overly critical in supervising their own child. Another common problem is that immature teenagers may balk at taking orders from parents. "If I tell a teenager to pick up his clothes at home, he may resent it," says Arnold Gachman, who heads Gachman Metals, a 77-year-old family metal processing and recycling business in Fort Worth, Texas. "It may be difficult for him to understand that on the job, his father is giving orders because as a boss, he has to make sure a job is done properly."

Before Gachman's children began working in the family operation, they started out with summer jobs at other companies. Working for strangers, the children were forced to learn that they were expected to perform on their jobs.

Employees may be leery about supervising their boss's children, fearing that they will act as spies, bringing critical reports to the family dinner table. Parents must assure employees that their job is to provide fair and firm supervision; at the same time, children of the owner must be taught to show proper respect toward their adult supervisors.

As children of the boss, they must, of course, be prepared to face some special pressures. Working in a summer job at his family's business, 17-year-old Eric Gachman found himself in the spotlight. Employees quizzed him: Was he planning to enter the business? The question was not casual. As one employee in his twenties explained, the workers wanted to know what was in store for the company and whether the potential heir seemed motivated to carry on.

For the youngster, the summer on the job proved valuable. "He learned a lot about the responsibilities involved in this business," says Arnold Gachman. "He didn't really appreciate before the human side of the business — that customers, employees, and suppliers depend on us. It isn't just dollars and cents."

Family businesses may be tempted to provide special treatment for children. At some companies, youngsters are permitted to arrive whenever they like and take time off when it suits them. But children accustomed to privileged treatment may face a difficult adjustment when they enter the business as an adult. Employees may continue thinking of the grownup as the child who was given special treatment. Cautions Sam H. Lane, president of LBF & Associates, a family business consulting firm: "A lot of times when you see someone in his twenties or thirties with low self-esteem who can't fit into a business, you'll find a history of the family's giving him or her summer jobs that weren't serious."

Stan Luxenberg, a New York City-based financial writer, reports on business for many national magazines.


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June 1990


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