Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace.


Last year, the owner of the company where my husband and I have worked together for 11 years offered to let us buy his business. Neither of his two children living out of state seemed interested in taking it over. We agreed happily, but nothing was signed formally.

After a month, we learned that the owner was reneging on his offer and is going to sell to his children. The owner explained that when he told his children he was going to sell to us, they got upset and told him they wanted to take over the family business.

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A year later, the children have moved back to where the business is located. It has been a nightmare. I feel bitter, resentful and betrayed. I don't particularly care for his children, whom I believe to be lazy and ungrateful. Every day I come in to work I am faced with the fact that I will never own this business, and I have to listen to them talk about purchasing it.

This entire year both my husband and I had to swallow our pride and bite our tongues. Many of the suppliers, competitors and customers in our tightknit industry had assumed or heard from the owner that we were taking over the company. I can't tell them that the owner reneged, but I don't want to lie when they ask about it. My husband and I have contemplated starting a business, but we would be in direct competition with this company. Do I have any recourse? Do I seek professional help? I hate to leave, but I feel like they are forcing us to.

A: From where I sit, with no emotional or fiscal involvement - and certainly no MBA - the main problem seems to be that everyone is acting more on sentiment than on business sense.

I'm sure the owner wants to preserve the family's assets, but handing over the reins to offspring who previously showed no interest may not be what's best for the business - or for the offspring.

Meanwhile, I know it stings to have an offer dangled, then yanked away and handed to some carpetbaggers whose blood trumps your sweat and tears - and who will likely need your help to succeed. So boil away the emotion, and here's what's left: Your company is changing ownership. You have no faith in the new leaders. You're unlikely to advance if you stay, but you have the experience, reputation and industry contacts to succeed elsewhere - whether under your own shingle or another employer's. Moving on just makes sense for your career.

A therapist can help you process the feelings of betrayal, but the one professional you should consult is an attorney who can walk you through any non-compete clauses in your employment contract (or advise you on what legal action, if any, you might take based on your previous oral agreement with the owner).

To those who ask, reply: "Owner has decided to keep the business in the family, so Husband and I will continue working with you in our current capacity for now." Professional, truthful - and some might even hear it as code for "Make us an offer."