When responsibility and friendship collide, what do you do? Sometimes our loyalties get split, divided and stressed. Here are some questions the Maven is often asked:
Can I be friends with my employees? Most of the books say no, but this is a small group and a small town, and I don’t see any way around it. Besides, I like my employees!
Yes, you can be friends with your employees. You can also be friends with your boss. (The Maven is setting aside all issues relating to perceptions of favoritism in either case.)
However, you will eventually find yourself in a situation where you must be able to separate friendship from work responsibility. However perfect you both are, eventually an issue will arise where you need to give (or get) unwelcome information.
Ms. Maven is naturally aware that all of her readers are perfect, but at some point your friend may not be, and you will have to say something. Stop for a moment and really, seriously imagine having this sort of conversation. A little worst-case planning here really pays off – imagine yourself having to fire or lay them off. If you cannot do so in relative comfort (of course firing is never done in comfort), then avoid becoming friends outside the workplace. It will simply be too hard on you in the long run.
So what happens when you hire a friend and then have to give a bad performance evaluation? Or start disciplinary action on an employee with whom you’ve started to socialize?
One thing for sure – you rapidly find out whether or not each of you is able to separate those two roles. Some can, some can’t. Some of us are more able to separate or compartmentalize than others. (Ms. Maven cautions those readers who might be feeling smug because they are great at this: The truly skilled at compartmentalization are called psychopaths, and that is not what we aspire to!) The only way friendship will really work is if both of you are people who can truly separate those roles. Yes, this is certainly possible; it is also less common.
Clear, direct communication is paramount. Discuss different scenarios before they happen, and agree on how you will handle them. Ask your friend, “What happens if I have to give you critical feedback? How will we maneuver that? What happens if it doesn’t work out and I have to fire you?” (Or, how will you react if your friend has to tell you you’re a lousy boss? These issues go both ways.)
Ms. Maven cautions you that this is one of those areas where people lie like a rug. They don’t mean to – they may honestly think that when you tell them to please stop exploring eBay on work time, that they will welcome the feedback and respond cheerfully. Maybe they will. And maybe you would like to buy a bridge the Maven has for sale at a most reasonable price.
Finally, if you know you, or they, typically have difficulty separating these roles, then Just Don’t Do It. Walk away from the idea. Walk away from the notion that your situation will be different. Walk away, and save yourself hours of grief and agonizing.
Ms. Maven – a friend just asked me to give him a job reference. He’s applying for a front-desk position, and he’s always late. He has lots of talents, but promptness is not one of them. What should I do?
You have two options here: one is to regretfully decline, and in polite, honest language, explain why you would rather not. The other option is to lie. You can lie to your friend (I’m sorry, I’m going to be ill that day). or you can lie to the people who call you (John is the most outstanding employee you will ever have, and is never late to work). Or, you can choose a middle position – say you’ll give the reference and hope like heck they don’t ask any awkward questions. However, the chances are very good that they will.
If you choose lying to the prospective employers, or shading the truth, cosmic law assures you may have future opportunity to eat your words with salt and pepper.
But the truth can, worst-case, cost you the friendship. Ms. Maven regretfully concedes that there is no good answer here. When forced, remember that you didn’t create the situation, and gentle, honest feedback can be a great gift to others.
And if John can’t hear what you have to say (as long as you are gentle and honest) maybe he’s not the greatest friend anyway.
Ramona Abbott is a management consultant who specializes in on-site training and coaching for managers and supervisors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.