Often in TAB board meetings, facilitators have heard comments like, “My sister wants to keep our company small and is fighting a controlled growth,” or “Dad won’t let go of the control,” or “My brother and I are paid the same and he doesn’t carry his weight.”
Family members usually have different levels of involvement and will rarely agree on what those levels are, or how to set fair compensation for different levels of involvement. Are the perks reasonable? What about the children of the non-active family member? Should the business be required to give them good jobs as well? Can it afford to? These conflicts get much worse if a divorce takes place.
One way to avoid lawsuits is to agree to binding arbitration. This means that you let a third party decide who is right after the party hears arguments and sees evidence from both sides.
Another alternative dispute resolution approach is the so-called “rent-a-judge” method. Family members hire a judge who gives a binding or, depending upon the wishes of the parties, a non-binding opinion.
Some family business disputes are being solved by using a confidential-non-binding process in which the attorneys representing the family members give condensed arguments to an expert adviser.
This process—called a mini-trial—lets family members look at the strengths and weaknesses of both sides and facilitates a settlement through the exchange of information.
Of course, the best solution is always to try to avoid disputes of this scale altogether by structuring the ownership and responsibilities in a family business to suit the abilities and personalities of the family members involved.
The sad reality is that these disputes are inevitable. When they do occur, the key is to acknowledge and address them right away, usually through an objective third party. The sooner you can act on a problem in your family-run business, the better your chances of avoiding the knockdown drag-out family feuds that cause the downfall of many businesses and the disruption of many families in business.
Allen E. Fishman founded The Alternative Board (TAB), the world’s largest franchise system providing advisory board and executive coaching services to business owners, Presidents and CEOs.