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Let’s Unpack That

‘One big, happy family’: How we all got sick of workplace platitudes

Despite many of their current and former presenters waging all-out war against one another in recent weeks, ‘This Morning’ is still referring to their cast and crew as ‘a family’. It’s the kind of management speak that many have grown suspicious of, writes Katie Rosseinsky

Saturday 10 June 2023 14:29 BST
‘Smile! We’re a family!’: Former ‘This Morning’ colleagues Phillip Schofield, Holly Willoughby, Ruth Langsford and Eamonn Holmes in happier times in 2017
‘Smile! We’re a family!’: Former ‘This Morning’ colleagues Phillip Schofield, Holly Willoughby, Ruth Langsford and Eamonn Holmes in happier times in 2017 (Getty Images)

After the queen of daytime TV Holly Willoughby made a sombre address to her subjects on Monday’s This Morning, her co-presenter Josie Gibson wrapped her up in a hug. “The only thing we can do now is be the family that we are,” Gibson told her colleague. Her words might have sounded familiar to anyone who tuned in to the preceding Friday’s show (or read the salvo of headlines that accompanied it). “As a family, we’re all really struggling to process everything,” an uncharacteristically downbeat Alison Hammond admitted to viewers.

In the wake of Phillip Schofield’s admission that he lied about an “unwise, but not illegal” affair with a younger colleague, and subsequent allegations of a toxic work environment (which ITV has denied), it seems the This Morning top team really, really wants you to know that the show’s cast and crew are like, well, one big, happy family.

It’s not just a crisis management tactic. This Morning has long referred to its team as a “family” – the website for the show’s 2019 live event even offered fans a chance to meet their much-loved “This Morning family” in person (a treat illustrated, ironically, with a photo of Ruth Langsford and her husband Eamonn Holmes, who, by the power vested in him by GB News, has recently embarked on an anti-ITV crusade). And there are plenty of workplaces around the country that use the same platitudes, whether they are talking to their employees, trying to appeal to new ones or describing their company culture.

The “work family” might sound like another naff management cliché to file alongside “circling back” and “low-hanging fruit”. But there has actually “been a family element to work throughout a lot of our history”, says Dr Alex Gapud, cultural anthropologist at employee engagement consultancy scarlettabbott. Hunter-gatherers would move in small groups consisting of a few different families; farmers would later have lots of children to help out on their land.

“With the emergence of small-scale cottage industries before the Industrial Revolution, you might have a blacksmith who teaches his son [the technique],” Gapud adds. And, after that, a factory might employ multiple generations of the same family. That tradition persists in some “industrial working-class communities” where businesses might have “deep ties to a local community”, but for many of us now, “the nature of labour has become a lot more diffuse, it’s less rooted”. In general, we no longer have familial ties to our workplace, but the literal has instead become figurative.

Referring to a work family is now a shorthand to “invoke a sense of community and togetherness, and genuinely caring for each other”, as career coach Gina Visram puts it. Dr Derek Bousfield, head of department in language, information and communications at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-author of Talking In Clichés: The Use of Stock Phrases In Discourse and Communication, agrees. “Think about the connotations behind the word family,” he says. “Unless you’ve had an extremely negative upbringing, most people will think very positively about families. It’s somewhere you can be protected, you can be nurtured and allowed to grow.”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? If you’re lucky, a “family” work environment will do those things. Working with one company “that constantly referred to their employees as family” for several years, content writer Rutuja Nirdhar says her managers “would always lend you their ear and would support anybody emotionally as much as they could”, and workers “could express [their] thoughts and feelings quite transparently”. But that’s a best case scenario – and for many workers, the “f” word can be off-putting.

We were family until we were doing these redundancy interviews

Anette Suveges

Take journalist Marcio Delgado’s experience. In 2019, he interviewed for a new role. “Over half an hour into the interview, however, we were still talking about how great the company was, that they were family and would often have days out and events over the weekend to bring staff closer,” he says. “The thought of spending Monday to Friday working for a company, and then having to put up with extended hours of socialising and bonding commitments over the weekends truly discouraged me from wanting to be part of that family.’”

He eventually declined a second interview. “I just didn’t have the heart to tell them that what they saw as a bonus, simply felt like a burden to me. I also wondered how people would perceive me, within the company, if I started working with them and skipped too many of those ‘family’ gatherings. Would they think I am not a ‘team player’ or borderline anti-social? Some people may like their lives to overlap with their workplace. I like to keep it professional and separated.”

We spend so much time at work that it’s inevitable that “we build some really deep relationships”, Gapud says, not least because “our social institutions have become less organic, more diffuse” – for many of us, “work, for better or worse, rightly or wrongly, tries to fill that gap” in our communities. But, he notes, “there are a lot of dangers that come with that” – and they’re arguably more alarming than having to spend a Saturday morning completing an escape room with your CEO.

Generally, most people “would go above and beyond, any time of the day or night, to help out family members”, Bousfield says. “So if you’ve got a company or an organisation that’s constantly saying, ‘well, we’re a family’... there’s always a risk of it being a little bit exploitative.” There might be an expectation that you’re always available; work might even start to feel “like quite an emotional burden, because you feel a lot more responsible for your work than you optimally should do”, as Lee Chambers, psychologist and founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, puts it.

‘I also wondered how people would perceive me if I started working with them and skipped too many of those “family” gatherings…’ (iStock)

Every family, he adds, is “dysfunctional” in its own specific ways, and it’s when work cultures start to replicate those more negative qualities that things can become toxic. “Think about a family’s unspoken rules,” says executive coach Lara Cullen, author of How to Be a People Person. “It’s like, we’ll tolerate anything and anything is tolerated. If you’ve got a really obnoxious family member, [family will say] ‘oh, that’s just Uncle John’. It’s almost like you can’t challenge that and you have to accept bad behaviour, particularly depending on where that person sits in the hierarchy, [or] the longer they’ve been there.”

Invoking “family”, then, might act as a smokescreen for bad behaviour, or a deterrent when employees want to speak out about problems. Chambers agrees that in a “family” culture, people often suppress their concerns to keep the peace. “It’s harder to be critical with the family,” he says. PR executive Anette Suveges heard many variations on “we’re a family” during her stint working in London’s hospitality industry. “I’ve had countless interviews where that’s basically the whole selling point… [that] ‘we care about you, we’re not like the others, we are our own little family here,’” she says.

After being sold those lines “many, many times, I started to believe it”, but “it didn’t take me long to start seeing through it”. Her former employers, she believes, used the “family” rhetoric “when it [was] convenient for them – when there’s bullying and harassment going on between kitchen and front of house staff, when you have a grievance, we’re not a family anymore”. Then when lockdown kicked in at the start of 2020, she found herself facing redundancy from a company that had spent weeks and weeks inducting her into their much-vaunted culture.

‘It didn’t take me long to start seeing through it' (iStock)

“We [were] family until we [were] doing these redundancy interviews, [with] the biggest, coldest set of HR criteria that you can come up with,” she says. “I was like, where’s my ‘family’ right now when I really need them?” It’s scenarios like this when the rhetoric feels the most hollow – all ‘family’ members are not equal when it comes to business cuts. “If you think about the people making the decisions, if they need to streamline or if they need to go in a different direction, there will be no qualms about cutting you and making your position disappear,” Visram says. She points to the swathes of tech employees who were “cut off from their organisation without a word” earlier this year.

Situations like this can feel especially wounding because our employers have (inadvertently or otherwise) encouraged us to overinvest in our work lives; they have blurred our expectations. “When we go to work, we generally have an expectation of: I work hard, I’ll put in my best effort, I get paid, I don’t get treated badly,” Cullen says. “And that’s generally the psychological contract. But when we start introducing words like ‘family’, it really muddies it and confuses it – it pulls people in all sorts of different directions.”

It’s no wonder, then, that many workers now see this buzzword as a red flag. Our attitudes to work are shifting, catalysed by the pandemic: according to Deloitte’s latest Gen Z and Millennial Survey, which collated the response of 22,856 people born between 1983 and 2004, work-life balance is the top consideration when choosing a new employer. Against this backdrop, perhaps businesses will stop playing happy families altogether. “However an organisation chooses to define themselves, I think we as employees [should] go into it giving our best, wanting to build relationships and do brilliant work,” Visram says. “But don’t get caught up in the hype that something is a family and that you’re indispensable, because that doesn’t exist anywhere.”

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