as published in the Summer 2002 issue of Family Business Magazine
Margo was dumbfounded. She never would have believed her son Brett could humiliate her this way. She just discovered that Brett was having an affair with one of their employees, while his unsuspecting wife was at home caring for their two children. She knew that Brett was having trouble at home but she thought with the marriage counseling that things were back in order.
Of course Glen, Brett’s father had “indulged” in a few flings when he was younger, but Margo was sure Brett knew nothing of this. Brett’s actions created a tremendous weight of responsibility for Margo as the matriarch of the family and as co-owner with her husband Glen of the family/business. How was she to handle this problem? Who should know about it? Who already knew?
Glen started the sheet-metal manufacturing plant in his garage 30 years ago when he decided to escape from the monotony of working for unenlightened employers. Using his engineering degree, he had an idea to build better fittings for trucks, such as cargo boxes. His ideas appealed to independent truckers and eventually spread to larger trucking companies. Margo helped with the business while it was based at home. She handled administrative details like office organization, billing and bookkeeping. As the business – and the children- grew, Margo stepped back. Glen moved the operation to warehouse space and hired more professional and technical employees. Thirty years later, Glen’s company has become a national business with three manufacturing plants and a fourth in the works. He wants to retire and feels he ahs the right people in place to succeed him. However, recent events have made him concerned that the transition of leadership to his son will be shaky.
Margo’s story, unfortunately, is common. Sex and infidelity erupt in a family and cause aftershocks that affect the lives of many people. When a family also is part of a larger system such as a family firm, the web of entanglement reaches out not only to other family members, but also to employees, vendors, customers, business advisers, and the myriad other people who are part of the family/business system.
In my own experience as a family business psychologist for more than 25 years, I’ve found that extra-marital affairs are seldom a secret. A few in the company may be clueless, but lovers’ behaviors give them away. Then there are those indiscretions, like phone calls or emails from the office, or gifts purchased with the company credit card, or business trips for one but hotel reservations for two. Eventually the facts mount up and things erupt. Before this however, employees, coworkers and other family/firm members are aware of the problem but feel helpless to do anything. Some try to ignore it and carry on with work. Others may be so brave as to offer advice. Most worry about their future because they doubt the leadership that would ignore or allow the infidelity. Deception makes people uncomfortable and uncomfortable people make mistakes. As the internal discomfort escalates, and the mistakes escalate, and the stress escalates, the problem can spill out to customers, vendors and others you do business with.
As many family/business owners know, entrepreneurship with one’s family offers tremendous rewards. But this lifestyle also carries with it a larger responsibility toward others than you might think at first.
In my practice, I have seen many marriages face infidelity and come to grips with the impact it has on the couple, the family and the business. The solution almost always comes in two parts: First, you must understand the nature of infidelity itself or why it happens at all. Second, you must understand the effects that infidelity has on the entire family/business system.
If we psychologists know anything about infidelity it is that infidelity is seldom just about sex. Infidelity is a symptom, just as a sore throat is about a cold coming on, or that whirring/pinging sound under your car hood is about a loose belt. Symptoms tell us there is a problem needing attending to. If you have a sore throat you should rest, drink fluids and take some aspirin. If you press on through, chances are your cold will be twice as bad. Likewise, if you ignore the whirring/pinging sound coming from under your car hood, you risk having a belt break and cause greater damage to your car than if you took it to the mechanic right away. Infidelity is like that. There were probably symptoms long before the first act of indiscretion, but no one was looking or listening for it.
The really difficult part though is figuring out what the symptom is telling you. Usually infidelity is a big secret so it is not likely that the family is talking about it openly, even if they know about it. What’s more, the person engaging in the action isn’t always very open to discussing his or her misbehavior with the family. But talking about the symptom is exactly what is needed to get to the bottom of the problem. No doubt the talking should take place with a professional psychologist, in private at first and not with the family as a whole. But eventually the family/business system needs to be brought into the solution process.
So why are partners unfaithful to each other? There are as many reasons as there are people. Each of us is wired slightly differently and each of us breaks down slightly differently. Brett’s infidelity was related to some problems he and his wife, Laurie, were having at home, but Brett was also unhappy at work. At 42, he had a good job that afforded him the opportunity to live luxuriously. He was respected and admired in his community. But, Brett felt the psychological pressure to be his “own man.” He still worked for his parents, and that made him feel less than independent. Added to this is that Brett was still angry with his parents for never resolving their marital problems. Brett was not naïve about his father’s “indulgences.” He was angry that his parents kept these things a secret (that everyone knew) and that he had to grow up playing the game too. He was angry that a part of his innocence as a child had been taken away before he was ready to take on the complexities of life.
The issue here is not to blame or focus narrowly on the indiscretion, but to search for the root or roots of the problems, and then to build an intervention. When you are in the middle of this kind of emotional uproar, you aren’t always capable of thinking clearly on your own. You need the objective guidance of a professional trained in helping families heal from psychological assaults. Plus the natural tendency of all families- whether they are in business together or not- is to cover up problems in the mistaken belief that doing so will keep the family safe. The professional can gently guide the family members back to some semblance of common sense and solutions that work instead of hiding the problem as Margo and Glen had done years ago.
Margo was the first one to seek help. She was extremely distraught but afraid to confront her son or her husband. After we talked she realized that she could not solve this problem, so she asked Glen to attend our next meeting. Glen, now older and wiser, was not as stubborn as Margo had feared. He acknowledged that his careless behavior earlier in his career had lead to heartbreak for his wife. He was unaware however, that his affairs had caused problems for his son.
In the process of my walking the couple through the facts of family life, they were better able to understand how their role modeling had indeed affected Brett. Margo and Glen also had to acknowledge that times had changed and that the business world was not as tolerant of sexual indiscretions, especially among business leaders. If the business were to thrive under Brett’s leadership, he had better develop more insight than his parents had.
The next step was to meet with Margo, Glen and Brett. I encouraged the parents to carry the conversation as they pressed Brett to be honest about his predicament. They were loving but firm that Brett needed to resolve his personal problems or that he would hold back the company.
Glen and Margo also confessed that they had let him down as parents. They were willing to take some responsibility for poor parenting, but they were not willing to take responsibility for an adult child. Brett needed to face the consequences of his own actions.
Brett was angry and confused but was willing to seek individual psychotherapy to figure out what he wanted- in terms of his marriage as well as whether he wanted to continue with the family business.
Over time Brett and his wife, Laurie, became involved in marital therapy again and they recommitted to each other. Brett didn’t want to run away from his wife or his responsibilities to the company, but he didn’t know who he was. He had been his parents’ child and never really grew up until the confrontation forced it.
Eventually I met with Margo, Glen, Brett and his wife Laurie to discuss how to resolve the problems at work. With the secrets out of the closet and spread out for all to see and discuss, it was much easier to plan for rebuilding the lost trust at work. Brett’s behavior had seriously compromised his leadership at work, especially since he had had an affair with an employee. Was it fair to fire her? The company was large enough to transfer her to another operation but was that a kind of punishment? Would the other employees have opinions about all of this?
The best solution for this family business was to transfer the employee and require of her that she attend psychotherapy privately. (She too must have some unresolved growing up problems.) She was a hard worker, but her behavior could not be allowed to influence the morale of the team.
Brett met with the managers and talked about his indiscretion and what he was doing to correct the problem. They were relieved by his candor: It meant they didn’t have to keep a secret any longer or talk behind his back.
As this case suggests, unresolved marital infidelity, led to a similar problem in the next generation. If Margo had not sought help for her family, Brett may have deteriorated further and never grown up. Company managers were already questioning his leadership, so upon Glen’s retirement or death they might have abandoned Brett.
Organizations can survive infidelity without cleaning it up, but in such cases the culture becomes one of getting by rather than thriving. Mentally healthy people choose to work in more ethical organizations.
It’s not so easy any more to dismiss infidelity as “flings” or “indulgences.” People are willing to level sexual harassment charges at the President of the United States, so I doubt that your employees, customers and others are more tolerant of these types of behaviors among the family/firms they do business with. This type of behavior can be very harmful to your business in terms of respect and market share. So the object is to deal with it swiftly but not punitively. For example, a large trucking company continually ignored the sexual harassment complaints of employees regarding one manager because he was dynamite at getting the work done and ahead of schedule. However, after the third lawsuit, they began to see that the problems he brought to them and morale problems of their staff far outweighed the gain. (They waited until his behavior was so outrageous that he was having sex with employees on pallets in the warehouse!)
The minute you get wind of the symptom of infidelity, confront the people immediately. Don’t cast blame, but explore or investigate what the real problem is. It’s easy enough to suggest that an employee seek professional help, because his or her job is on the line. With a family/business member and a co-owner of the business, it may be necessary to arrange an intervention, or a meeting of trusted family members and advisers who meet with the troubled person and confront them, similarly to the confrontation of an alcoholic.
Many people see infidelity as a moral issue, but it may be more useful to see it as a problem of practicality. Infidelity destroys trust not just between marital partners but among those who know the people involved. Deception and betrayal are not characteristics we want in our children or employees, so why would you condone them? Better to confront the problems head on. Refer troubled people to professionals for guidance and refer troubled family business managers to consultants who can help you redesign a system that helps people solve their problems and power issues in an enlightened way.
Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Family/Business Consultant is the author of Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home. Please visit her website at www.entrepreneurialcouples.com. On line consultation is available also.