Posting by Ed Kopf, Ph.D., Principal at BMC Associates
The genius of the American political system is that it tries to assure every individual at least enough fairness and respect to keep us working within the system. Even if we are unhappy with current policies and practices, almost all of us are willing to address our grievances by the rules – so long as we know we can speak our piece, be treated fairly in the legal system, and be reasonably secure in our persons and property. That’s the function of the Bill of Rights. Our political disagreements can get pretty disagreeable. But they rarely threaten to tear the country apart.
That’s not always true in families – especially those that own and operate a business. The stakes can be very high when disagreements develop in a business-owning family. Family members’ livelihood, their self-respect, and their closest personal relationships can all be on the line. But the greatest tensions often aren’t caused by the substantive issues at hand. They arise from feelings of being mistreated in the course of the dispute. Children feel infantilized by their parents. The older generation feels disrespected by the younger. No one feels they can make their voice heard. All too often, the basic courtesies that family members show toward others are honored in the breech in the family setting. The refrain “what about my rights?” is on everyone’s mind if not lips.
Maybe families with businesses need their own Bill of Individual Rights. If everyone could agree that there are some fundamental lines that won’t be crossed, they might develop a sense of safety that would enable them to work together — even under extreme stress. If it were clear that some individual rights and prerogatives would be respected, family members could more easily “work within the system” to solve serious disputes.
There probably isn’t a single list of such rights that will suit all families. Like every state, each family needs to identify its own rules reflecting its basic values. In any case, the discussion about the Rights might be as valuable as the list produced.
But some rights are likely to work for many families in our particular time and place. I invite you to join in defining a Model Family Business Bill of Individual Rights. There should be ten, of course (like the Amendments, the Commandments, and the Days of Christmas). I’ve listed some candidates for the Bill of Individual Rights below. You are invited to make Comments on this blog posting with some of your own ideas. Keep mine, rewrite them, or drop them. Definitely add new ones. The author of the best Comments (as judged by readers ratings and my ultimate discretion) will be eligible for a free copy of David Gage’s The Partnership Charter: How to Start Out Right With Your New Business Partnership (or Fix the One You’re In). Ready, set, go!
The Family Business Bill of Individual Rights: A Draft for Your Amendment
- Every person shall have the right to respectfully express his or her thoughts and feelings and to be respectfully heard.
- No person shall be publicly humiliated or otherwise be deprived of his or her self-respect and dignity by others.
- The right of self-determination over the use and disposition of one’s personal assets shall not be denied.
- The right of self-determination over the direction of one’s personal or professional life shall not be abridged by others.
- Spouses mutual access to business and other information critical to their lives shall not be denied.
- Every person shall have the right to a serious and sympathetic hearing when he or she feels that one of these Rights has been abridged.
Note: My thanks to Barbara Hauser and the participants in the Family Advisory Council for the stimulating discussion that inspired this posting.