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The Case of the Family Feud

The family dynamics in an independent jewelry store begin to spiral out of control

As he sat at the diamond counter after an especially crazy Saturday at Hoffman Jewelers, David Hoffman thought about how rare it would be today to be a fifth-generation owner of his family’s business … if he made it that far. Yes, the meetings with the accountant and the attorney and even the banker had already happened, and the paperwork was already started, but the plan was for the process to play out over a 5-year span — and barely one year in, David wasn’t sure he could tolerate even another day!

David grew up like his cousins and most of his friends, in what he always considered a “spirited” home. He and his parents and his older sister all loved one another, but it seemed that even the simplest of conversations happened at 90 decibels — and real disagreements were often enough to rattle the roof. He never really thought much about it as a kid until he saw how the dynamic played out in the store when he started working with his parents and his uncle as a high school student. When he came back to work the summer after his first (strangely quiet) year away at college, David thought that seeing his uncle and his father get into it over the best approach to a repair or his mom try to school the men about how to handle a problem customer was like watching a bad, old comedy show. That summer and the several summers following, he learned how to use his own brand of comedy to defuse uncomfortable situations and to keep things on a reasonably even keel. He understood why his sister had chosen to go law school and avoid the family business entirely.

In 2016, after four years of college, a year at GIA, and three years working as a salesman then manager for a high-end store in California, David came back home to work for his mom and dad. He would manage the store while they started cutting back hours and prepared for his transition to next-generation owner. The first year was much like he remembered: loud, boisterous and often uncomfortable. He tried talking to his parents about the need to present a more professional atmosphere, and while they would get better for a few days, it never took long for them to revert to their near-constant bickering, and for his dad to find something else to complain (loudly) about.

It was near the beginning of 2019, when his uncle retired, that David began to notice significant changes in his father’s behavior. His usual verbal volleys started to sound more sharp and critical, bordering on abusive. This presented a real problem for David, who had hired several new people over the previous year to replace retiring employees. The outbursts directed at David and his mom seemed to be getting especially harsh and more frequent.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

David’s younger team was doing a great job of drawing new customers to Hoffman’s, but they had little patience for his father’s tirades — especially when they were directed at David, and especially when there were customers in the store. That particular Saturday had been especially challenging. The first customer of the day had come in to pick up a repair that was not ready as promised, prompting a blistering dress-down of the jeweler. Then, later in the day, the senior Mr. Hoffman interrupted the store’s top salesperson in the middle of a diamond presentation because he didn’t like the way she was holding the tweezers. The woman dared to challenge him after the customer left, going back to his office to tell him that he had embarrassed her in front of her customer and asking politely that he not interrupt her again. He told her that since it was his business, he would interrupt whenever he wanted — and that if she didn’t want to be embarrassed, she should stop being a moron and learn to do her job properly. Unfortunately, he was speaking at a volume that had his voice carrying throughout the store. Mortified, the employee told David she needed to take a walk and collect her thoughts. When she came back to the store just before closing an hour later, she told David that she had talked with her brother (an attorney) who said that she needed to lodge a formal complaint with her immediate supervisor. He told her that what she was describing clearly constituted a hostile work environment, and that the company had an obligation to make it stop. She said she didn’t want to resign, but that she really couldn’t take the abusive tirades anymore — and she wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

David clearly did not want to lose his top salesperson, and the words “attorney” and “hostile work environment” raised a major red flag for him. He had had more than his share of “don’t take it personally – it’s just the way he is …” conversations over recent months and he was just out of patience. He couldn’t help but feel that any attempt to talk with his father would be futile — but as a manager, and as a minority owner of the company, he knew he had to do something before they lost their whole team, got sued into oblivion or both.


Is Hoffman Jewelers in any real danger? Could employees actually sue the company over being yelled at — or over owners yelling at each other? What can he do to save this employee and to calm the rest? Is there an approach David can take that might be effective with his father now, or should he wait until he owns enough company shares to fire him?

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