Commentary: Who would have thought small businesses can be pretty dysfunctional?
The NOC saga has gotten Adrian Tan thinking about his own experience starting a business with his wife and the challenges facing small family firms. He thinks such issues can be tackled, not by such places becoming more "corporate" but in being more human.
SINGAPORE: Eight years ago, I commissioned Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) to do some promotional videos for my small recruitment business.
One was titled "10 Types of Singaporean Bosses".
From the ruthlessly demanding manager to the mercurial, emotional wreck, it was an over-the-top attempt to capture the stereotypes of bosses and maybe try to laugh at our situations.
Those were simpler times. NOC just started their channel as a passion project out of an apartment in West Coast.
They did not have a sizeable past portfolio. But their sincerity shone through so I engaged them.
Reading what they are going through now pains me. Re-watching that old video this week felt pretty ironic when it mirrored some of the allegations around workplace harassment and corporate misdeeds thrown at Sylvia Chan and Ryan Tan.
FAMILY BUSINESSES CAN BE DYSFUNCTIONAL
We all hope misunderstanding around the episode can be cleared up and misconduct left to the appropriate authorities to handle.
As someone who started his first business with his wife involved from day one, I empathise with the commonalities in our experiences and feel a profound sense of sadness seeing the media circus around their affairs.
Building a business isn’t easy. Discovering you want to do that with the love of your life can be a life-changing moment but it can mean a long tail of implications.
Think about it. Blurred personal and professional lines between husband and wife are sufficiently challenging to navigate but imagine walking that tightrope as a staff member.
Awkward doesn’t begin to describe it. When power dynamics were unclear, even in managing the simplest issues, our employees had to be extra mindful around my wife so they don’t land me, their founder, in hot soup.
Life bled into work in other ways. When things went south over an argument at home, it naturally showed in our tiny bootstrapped business.
We would arrive at work separately, leave separately and avoid interacting with each other at work. If we had to communicate, some poor soul would inevitably become the messenger. They’d have no clue what was going on, yet have to avoid becoming collateral damage.
There was a period our marriage was on the rocks - one of the lowest times in my life. I deeply regret letting that affect our employees.
My wife would avoid the office like the plague. I was physically at the workplace but my mind was troubled and distracted. People whispered. Morale was poor and it impacted our bottom lines.
If a bitter divorce was added to that mix, like in NOC’s case, I’m not sure the business would have survived.
BUT SMALL BUSINESSES CAN BE ATTRACTIVE TO EMPLOYEES
Many are wondering why small enterprises so often seem to fail at upholding ethical, legal and fiduciary responsibilities.
Some point to a charismatic but misguided founder, like WeWork’s Adam Neumann, wielding unchecked power over hapless employees that continued when the business exploded to become a titan in the industry. But I find that finger-pointing narrative too simplistic.
For one, workers who join a small business know what they’re getting themselves into. My first-ever hire told me she was repulsed by the idea of working in a huge, faceless organisation, where office politics and red-tape bureaucracy sucked up time and energy better channelled to getting real work done.
Besides, she said, a small company offered room for growth since it could not afford to have specialists, meaning plenty of opportunities for everyone to step up, roll up their sleeves and take on new challenges. No two days felt the same.
Proximity to business owners also meant welfare perks like spot days off or extra cash incentives could be rolled out easily.
My wife and I treated our employees like family. I would drive my team out to grab snacks and food. I saw it as an employee benefit bigger competitors cannot replicate and wanted to foster an environment of support, trust and ultimately, belonging.
This is something over 200 Silicon Valley start-up founders in the early 2000s intuitively understood - that cultivating strong family like- feelings can foster productivity and company loyalty, as studies have shown.
When does work cross the line? And do office workers have a "right to disconnect"? HR experts break it down on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
AS FAMILY COMPANIES GROW, MANAGING THEM GETS COMPLICATED
Small businesses sound ideal on paper, but the reality lies in what transpires after workers join and how they’re treated as the business grows and new pressures emerge.
NOC today has more than 30 people on payroll. It is a far cry from the day when Ryan and Sylvia had to do everything and enlist the help of close friends and relatives.
Operations are probably more complex and varied, and leadership of the firm, along with ensuring profitability and managing day-to-day operations, is a whole different ball game.
“Ideally you have a senior management team in place that reflects where the company is in terms of their stage of growth and size,” family business advisor Sean O’Dowd said to Yale Insights in explaining the vast leadership challenges start-ups face as they scale.
BEING MORE HUMAN AS THE BUSINESS SCALES
Corporate governance experts say a clear management structure with a whistleblowing policy and an independent board to exercise oversight can identify business transgressions and workplace abuse. But my experience has taught me otherwise.
When was the last time you heard of a board getting rid of a bad middle manager or identifying a harassment case at a small or medium-sized enterprise?
We want standards of human decency at work that transcend the threat of punishment and micro-managing organisational structures. That’s why such stories of bad behaviour in the workplace, if true, are abhorrent to us.
And we know problems can be tackled rapidly between people at the root rather than from 30,000 feet.
The onus should lie on founders to foster a productive working environment. To continue reaping the benefits of a small business in terms of a strong collegial environment and sense of purpose, they must take steps to ensure workers can voice concerns and flag sketchy behaviour.
If such reporting is framed as a chance for fairness and improvement, workers in tight-knit firms might be able to overcome hesitation that speaking up will land someone in trouble.
Cultivating a positive, trusting organisational climate may also encourage employees to communicate concerns to their supervisors over burnout, difficult clients and other challenges they may otherwise bury until it’s too late for any rectification.
That should include an open, two-way dialogue about performance standards, expectations and goals so that workers do not feel like the earth is shifting beneath them, especially this coronavirus period when uncertainty over work has created huge amounts of anxiety.
These are steps in the interests of the organisation. An anxious team may deal with tensions by avoiding work or focusing on low-value tasks.
A REAL SHAME IF JOB SEEKERS AVOID SMALL BUSINESSES
It would be a shame if the only lesson derived from these episodes is to avoid small or couple-run businesses at all costs.
They might miss out on big career opportunities. Local companies such as LionsBot are couple-founded and have only gone from strength to strength. Singapore brands like BreadTalk, Udders and Empire Eats have been established by husband-and-wife teams.
And the names of the Murdoch family, the Porshe-Piech grandsons and the Ambani brothers have made global business history.
Ultimately, every employee deserves a safe workplace - one that is transparent, consistent and communicative. All business owners have the responsibility to see to that.
Small businesses who operate like they’re family should bear in mind they could slide into becoming a dysfunctional one, and strive to avoid that as much as they can.
Adrian Tan is the Future of Work Strategist at the Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) which aims to professionalise and strengthen the HR practice in Singapore.