Colleagues and bosses are not
By Lucy Kellaway
The idea that employees are part of one big, corporate family is delusional
ast month, when Google spent $3.2bn on a company that makes smoke alarms, Larry Page
declared that the Nest team were terrific guys who he was “excited to welcome into the Google family”.
Such guff sounded uncannily familiar. A little more than two years ago, when Google agreed to pay
$12.5bn for Motorola Mobility, he extended the same sort of wide mouthed welcome to its 20,000odd staff. “I look forward to welcoming Motorolans to our family of Googlers,” he said.
Only last week the company proved just how well it looks after its newly acquired children. It
unceremoniously sold off the handset business toLenovo, shoving the unloved Motorolans in the
direction of another foster home (although hanging on to valuable patents).
This idea, so beloved of Mr Page and the cheesier half of corporate America, that employees are
somehow part of the family is one of the most delusional metaphors of modern corporate life.
It is true that there are some similarities between a fake, workplace “family” and a real one. Members
in each spend a lot of time together. In both there are probably some shared values and some shared
dislike of certain other families. There can even be physical resemblances. Members of a real family
may congenitally have weak chins, while in a fake one, employees may slavishly wear hoodies simply
because the boss does.
Otherwise the metaphor is cloying, disingenuous and all round bogus. For a start it is wrong on size. I
know a bit about big families as my husband is one of seven children. But Google has 46,000
employees. No one can have that many siblings, or even third cousins twice removed.
It is also wrong on emotion. Families are the best Petri dish ever known for love – and for hate.
Workplaces operate much more smoothly without either.
An even more crucial difference is that you don’t choose your family – you are stuck with them and
can’t fire them if they are doing a rotten job. You can have a blazing row and tell them never to darken
your door again, but they are still your family, whether you like it or not.
By contrast, when you leave a company you stop existing for them. Everyone writes on leaving cards
“this place won’t be the same without you”, yet within an indecently short time it is exactly the same.
There is nothing wrong with this. If relationships at work are contingent and opportunistic, it is
because things go better that way.
The financial flows in the two groups are different too. In a real family you don’t generally pay people
to do things for you (paying a child to clean the car is an inferior arrangement to browbeating him into
doing it for nothing). When money changes hands within families it is not performance-related.
If fake families get more like real ones it is not a change for the better. Home is traditionally where
children are looked after, old people cared for, visits to the dentist arranged, meals prepared and the
washing done, but increasingly these tasks are done at work instead. Companies including Google will
do your cooking, take care of your teeth, dry cleaning, children and parents, offering benefits that are
superficially attractive but deep-down sinister.
First, they make the employer far too central to its workers’ lives, offering not just a livelihood but
what might be called a “total life solution”. Second, these benefits are infantilising. Doing the chores
and caring for our families is what makes adults of us.
Worst of all, the quid pro quo is that, freed from domestic drudgery, we can work even harder. To
invest less in our real families and more in our fake ones is unlikely to be a wise move, given the
differences between the two groups.
If this blurring of the line between work and family makes me anxious, it is not as bad as what is going
on at PepsiCo. Not content with making employees part of her fake family, CEO Indra Nooyi is
dragging their real families in too. Last month shetold an audience at Davos that she writes personal
letters to the parents of her direct reports, thanking them for the gift of their children. Even more
scarily, she said she had called the mother of one potential hire, enlisting her help in persuading her
son to choose to work for PepsiCo.
This makes me shudder. If you are old enough to work for Ms Nooyi, you can make your own
decisions. And anyway such approaches can backfire. I remember as a young adult splitting up with a
boyfriend, who then visited my parents to see if they could weigh in on his behalf. There is no space to
say what happened next. But PepsiCo should take note: it did not end well.