The Peril of Working with Friends

The Peril of Working with Friends

A client recently suggested that I write a newsletter on “Hiring friends to work with you – and what you both do when you stop liking and respecting each other in the workplace.” Needless to say, she was not having a good time at work that day.

It seems that the experience of working closely with a personal friend is either fabulous, or horrible, without much in between. At first blush, working with a friend makes perfect sense. Presumably, you believe you know your friend, you trust her, you share many if not most of the same values, you have the same work ethic, and you respect her. So if all goes well, both your friendship and work thrive. Unfortunately, however, many people dive into a work situation with a friend and just the opposite occurs.

What goes wrong?

Danger Areas Before You Begin Working Together
Many major pitfalls occur before you even start working together.
First, most people do not like to say “no” to friends. Which means that when a friend floats a work idea that you would find
harebrained if suggested by someone else, you are more likely to say yes. (For that matter, this is probably true for most ideas suggested by friends. Think, “teenagers and the dumb things they do with their friends.”)

Second, people avoid doing due diligence on friends because they assume they already know them, so it is not necessary to ask for references, or do any other research. However, knowing that someone loves to watch ice hockey, has a great sense of humor, likes to read, and is allergic to peanuts is not the same thing as knowing whether she is a strong writer or good manager.

Third, people are uncomfortable hammering out the details of a working partnership with friends. Before entering into a partnership with anyone, you should sit down and discuss in great specificity what your expectations are about financial contributions, business development, hours worked, how to share profits and losses, etc. etc. etc. Again, with friends, people simply assume that it all will work out. And then it doesn’t.

Danger Areas Once You Start Working Together
Let’s pretend for a moment that you took the necessary steps ahead of time – you independently analyzed the idea, did your due diligence, and entered into a comprehensive partnership agreement. That is great, but you are not in the clear yet.
Time and again, I have heard how hard it is to hold a personal friend accountable for issues that arise at work. For example, if your friend Amy promises to do something by Tuesday, and then fails to do so, you may let that slide. This does not mean, however, that you are not irritated. It just means that you want to be understanding because she is your friend, she is a good person, and you know she has a new puppy that is keeping her up at night.

Meanwhile, Amy may not be putting her best efforts into the project that she is doing with you for the very same reasons – you are friends, and she thinks you will be more understanding about her adorable new puppy than will others in the office. So she makes less of an effort with you than with your co-workers.

So you go along, letting things slide, until you are totally fed up. And then one day you lose your temper and loudly enumerate all
her failings, beginning with the time in Kindergarten when she borrowed your favorite hat and didn’t return it.

What Should You Do Instead?
Over the years, I have mediated many disputes between co- workers and the toughest, thorniest mediations have always, without exception, involved people who once described themselves as “very close” or “best friends.”
This does not mean that you shouldn’t work with friends or become close friends with work colleagues. A business partnership between friends can be immensely successful and fun. However, you must do the necessary work up front. This means having many very honest conversations about your expectations of one another. If you are finding this very difficult to do, then bring in a neutral third party to help you discuss everything you need to discuss, to ensure that you are both going into this with open eyes, and to reduce your understandings to writing.
Once you start working together, check in with each other regularly (every two to three months) and formally. By “formally” I mean set aside a chunk of time – at least an hour – hold all calls, and review your agreement item by item to make sure that you are on track. If you’re not sure, bring in that third party again to help you discuss it.

In addition, be honest with one another if and when issues arise. Letting things fester does not actually make them go away.

Finally, recognize that sometimes friends just can’t work together and it might be better for the organization and your friendship if one or both of you moves on.


 

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