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Lessons from the pirates: Dispute resolution

By Danielle Walsh

Photos ©
Photos ©

The question of how disputes will be dealt with was just one of the issues covered in Captain John Phillips’ pirate code of conduct. The code included the following rules:

“1. If there is any doubt in a dispute between ye Brothers, a court of honours is to decide the verdict. If a Brother is proved in the wrong, the first time he shall be pardoned, but should he offend again, he shall be tied to a gun, and there shall receive from each of the ship’s company one strike of the lash. The same punishment shall be given to ye among us, including officers, who shall get drunk, while on the ship, to the point of losing ye senses.

2. Quarrels between several Brothers whilst aboard ye ship shall be settled ashore with pistol and sword. He that draws first blood shall be the victor. No striking another whilst aboard ye ship.”

Now, these methods of solving disputes may not be ideal for families in business. However, the rules were clear. The pirates knew what to expect if they had a disagreement—they would be pardoned once, and then they could expect to be punished or brought ashore, where the first to draw blood would win. The key to success was the fact all pirates knew exactly how disputes would be dealt with, and the fact the rules also outlined certain unacceptable actions.

This is often a missing link in family businesses. Poor behaviour or performance in family members can often go uncorrected for far too long. Understandably, no parent, aunt, uncle, or sibling wants to have to point this out to another family member, but this means those behaviours continue in the long term as they go unpunished. This is where the pirates’ code comes in.

For instance, the pirates’ rules say it is unacceptable for crew members to drink so much they lose their senses. Although this is a subjective behaviour (at what point are you deemed to have lost your senses?), the associated repercussions were made crystal clear. Understanding the related punishment acted as a major deterrent, unlike in a family business, where there tends to be more lenience and no punishment for poor conduct. Family members often take it for granted they will never be fired from the family business, thinking, “Mom and/or Dad would never do that to me!”

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When there are no clear expectations in place, it can be easy for disputes to arise in family businesses.
When there are no clear expectations in place, it can be easy for disputes to arise in family businesses.

The code also says no pirate can strike another aboard the ship, helping maintain a sense of order and harmony onboard. Having rules of conduct for siblings or cousins in a family business can similarly support a sense of professionalism. This is a key point in maintaining a positive work environment for non-family employees and managers.

In other words, setting rules related to how disputes will be dealt with—as well as desired behaviours—can play a significant role in maintaining a respectful and professional workplace. Although family businesses often set guidelines with respect to employment, ownership, and exit strategies, as these topics tend to bring up a lot of unanswered questions, many tend to forget to address disputes and proper conduct.

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