Family Business

Don’t let dependency issues linger within a family business

January 19, 2013 

A new year is a good time to start again, start fresh, and clear the slate. It is also a time to try to end bad habits and start good ones. New Year resolutions abound, and weight loss commercials can be seen and heard across every TV and radio station.

There is one bad habit that is very difficult to break, and can find a warm home sometimes in family businesses: chemical dependency. Chemical dependency is certainly an uncomfortable topic to discuss, and one wonders how it fits into the realm of concern of family businesses – especially as it is not contained to just family businesses.

Indeed, it is estimated that up to 5 percent of the population in the United States may suffer from alcohol dependency and abuse. While it is probably the most popular “chemical” that is abused, there are of course many others.

A quick search in Wikipedia defines alcoholism as “A broad term for problems with alcohol, and is generally used to mean compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcoholic beverages, usually to the detriment of the drinker’s health, personal relationships, and social standing. It is medically considered a disease.”

What causes alcoholism?

Of course what makes it difficult and awkward for many people is that it can be difficult to distinguish someone who is a heavy drinker and an alcoholic. We all remember that John Belushi-type friend in college who would tie one on, get silly and be the life of the party, but then be one of the first ones up in the morning and ready to go. While at the time you may have been concerned about them, they are now happily married, with great kids, and a good job. (Unfortunately John Belushi was not that way, and died of a drug overdose.)

I know some people who enjoy drinking, but decide to abstain for the month of January to give their bodies a rest, and perhaps to check in with themselves to make sure something has not gotten a hold of them that they are not aware of.

No one knows exactly what causes alcoholism. Some think there is a possibility that it is inherited genetically; however, this has yet to be proven. Others think there is a correlation between drinking at an early age and alcoholism. Chris Kennedy Lawford, UN Goodwill Ambassador on Drug Dependence and author of “Recover to Live,” recently stated in a CNN interview that drinking at an early age can damage parts of the brain that are still forming, possibly rewiring the brain to crave the substance. This runs somewhat contrary to the thought that allowing kids to drink some at an early age removes part of the mystique, thus possibly minimizing the rampant thrill-seeking binge drinking kids inflict upon themselves once they have enough time away from their parents.

Ignoring the Signs

What we do know is this: alcoholism and other chemical dependencies are the Trojan Horse of the family business. When someone is working in a company, especially a publically traded corporation, there is little to no tolerance for alcoholic symptoms. The risk is simply too great. While the danger may be the same in a family business, consequences can be significant.

Eighty-six percent of family business owners believe that the business will remain family owned in the future. Better said, 86 percent want the business to be passed on to the next generation. As such, family business owners can tend to overlook, brush off, or even cover up conduct violations that would incur disciplinary action in another company. At the same time, family members can equally let slide a dependency issue with the family business owner.

So why am I writing you this article? It is the beginning of the year, and time for a fresh start. I encourage you to muster the courage to have the conversation about a known chemical dependency problem in your family business. Yes, it takes some courage and it will be uncomfortable. But there is a lot of good help out there. And your family and business will be the better for it in the long-run.

Henry Hutcheson is a nationally recognized family business speaker, author and consultant in Raleigh. He can be reached at

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