The 'Work Family' Fantasy Is Actually Hurting Your Career - Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka
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The ‘Work Family’ Fantasy Is Actually Hurting Your Career

Your cool aunt Rhonda wouldn't cut your pay, now would she?

ABBY SILVERMAN I GETTY

In 2016, I got a job offer that changed my life. After two years of living with my parents, I landed a gig as the first full-time employee at an early stage direct-to-consumer startup. It wasn’t the kind of role I envisioned as a kid (I dreamed about becoming a novelist), but after being in college during the 2008 recession and watching a wave of startups like Uber and Airbnb assume enormous power, I was thrilled at the idea of joining the entrepreneurial ranks of my peers—and of making enough money to pay my own rent.

I jumped eagerly into my new job. I learned quickly, worked late, and memorized the brand story like a second social security number. I was tired all the time, but I was driven and happy to be a part of something bigger. I was lost in a way that most twenty-somethings who just moved out of their childhood bedrooms are, so I channeled my desire to be found into work. My founders and I were all under 30, living in the same neighborhood, and frequenting the same bars on the weekends. We were—and I say this now with a comically large eye roll—a family.

To clarify, having a “work family” is not the same thing as being part of a collaborative team or building close friendships with coworkers. It’s a dynamic that’s not rooted in mutual trust or shared experiences; rather, it’s a strategic phrase used by both CEOs and managers in hopes of keeping employees loyal. My own founders used this language often, and, at first, it gave me a really comforting sense of community. But this “work family” terminology can often lead to blurred boundaries and painful company exits.

Many workers are now finding themselves in this same leaky boat after experiencing furloughs, pay cuts, and layoffs as the economy implodes due to the coronavirus. It’s simple: companies don’t have enough money in the bank. Their decisions aren’t malicious; they’re business. And they’re a reminder that if you expect your bosses to treat you like their favorite kid, you’re going to be disappointed or heartbroken when they deem you nonessential or don’t deliver on a severance package. Even those lucky enough to be working from home while social distancing are doing so from cramped apartments while they take video calls with executives who escaped to spacious second homes. And let’s be real—unless they’re extending the invite, you’re still not a part of their family. When I joined that startup, the whole experience felt shiny, like being part of an exclusive club even when it was anything but. In the face of a leaking office ceiling or emails from furious customers, the founders rallied us with the kind of speeches reserved for troops going into battle. We were more than coworkers, they reminded us during an all-hands meeting devoted to the importance of responding to customer service messages at all hours, including nights and weekends. This particular task may not have been part of our core job descriptions nor did we get more money for doing it, but it was important to pitch in, they explained. That’s what families do.

Over time, the whole “family” thing became confusing and messy. It might sound silly, but I genuinely came to view my founders and coworkers as cool older siblings and smart, funny cousins. I attended their weddings, ate meals in their homes, and learned their quirks and fears. I helped my boss’ wife plan his birthday party because she was family too, right?

If you expect your bosses to treat you like their favorite kid, you’re going to be disappointed or heartbroken when they deem you nonessential or don’t deliver on a severance package.

These ties made it easier for me to turn a blind eye to unsettling office behaviors, like co-workers being fired suddenly, or employees being moved to new managers every few weeks. I was often confused about whom I was reporting to, and our collective job functions and goals changed rapidly, often without context or support. But because we were a “family,” I frequently made the kind of excuses that you usually reserve for an unruly uncle who drinks a little too much at Christmas and launches into an awkward, politically-charged diatribe. That’s just how things are at a fast-paced company, you know?

These super-close bonds also blinded me to other uncomfortable personal truths, like the fact that I was outgrowing the work I was doing and becoming hungry for new challenges. Being a writer had always been my dream and I finally decided that writing marketing copy and customer service emails could only satisfy me for so long. After two years on the job, I started pitching personal essays to the publications I read during my commutes to the office (hi, Cosmo!). But when my founders were less than supportive, the truth clicked for me: They were my bosses, not my family.

In the end, leaving the startup was extremely difficult because it was more than the end of a professional chapter. It was like grieving the loss of an entire community. But it also helped me realize that I’d never seek out a work family ever again. Plain and simple, forging those kinds of relationship at the office won’t guarantee security, status, or happiness in your professional life.

There’s no doubt that our working conditions will evolve after this pandemic, and in order to figure out how to move forward, we all need to be honest about our own professional dynamics. As employees, we have to understand that our work lives are really about providing a service and collecting a paycheck. If the gig happens to be fun and fulfilling, we’re lucky. But having deeper bonds with our bosses and coworkers isn’t something we’re entitled to; it’s an emotional pull that incentivizes us to keep sending Slack messages when we’d really rather log off and watch Tiger King with our actual families. And execs need to realize they’re building teams, not a family tree. At best, crossing this line is confusing. At worst, it’s manipulative.

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