5 Problems With Hiring Friends
For better or worse, the decision you make to hire a friend will change the course of your relationship forever.
We all want to be happy at work. Because of this, a lot of first-time founders choose friends when starting their companies. Founders cite numerous reasons ranging from pure charity to perceived culture-fit. Is it smart to hire your friends to work at your startup? I’ve had several different experiences when it comes to involving friends in my business ventures. The stories range from catastrophic failure to moderate success, but none of the stories end positively. Look, it could be me, but I’ve learned that things work more smoothly when I’m not directly managing friends at the office.
I’ve had friends disappear, not put in the effort, disrupt operations — you name it. The most successful business relationship that evolved out of friendship was with a co-founder of one of my previous startups. Without divulging too many friendship details, it would be safe to say that before my approaching this individual, we weren’t super close. I make this point for one reason: every friend that I partnered with or hired previously were very close friends. That’s the segment of friends on which this article focuses. The anxiety that comes with hiring a friend was alleviated when the friendship was less developed from the onset.
Although the problems discussed focus more on non-executive hiring, these issues can still plague a co-founder relationship in a similar fashion. One of the most challenging things to do is hire and partner with a good friend. For better or worse, your friendship will never be the same again. The difficult part? That outcome can be intensely dependent on how well the business does. Without any further ado, here are some of the key problems surrounding the topic of bringing on “friendployees.”
1. Workplace Attitudes
Having worked in design for the last 15 years, I’ve learned how to take sharp criticism. This type of dialogue is a vital part of crafting great experiences on top of smart business decisions. However, when a “friendployee” is disruptive or begins to raise hell because he’s “with the band” — to the point where teams can’t work effectively, or they’re no longer doing their job — it’s a problem. Friends working together are often comfortable using phrases and words that may not be appropriate for the workplace when communicating with one another. This dynamic can make other employees feel both uncomfortable and alienated. If you grew up in the US around the time I did, you’re probably familiar with the book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” The premise of the book is simple, a boy gives a mouse a cookie, and it turns into an onslaught of requests and needs. Though a fun book when growing up, the analogy I’m drawing here is not quite as fun. If you let a “friendployee” do something others usually can’t, it can quickly snowball into a more significant problem.
What to look out for:
- Changes in office tone/attitude around you or the “friendployee.” Catching these changes requires some level of awareness and focus. If you haven’t been keeping your eye on the morale of the office before this moment, make sure this becomes routine for you moving forward. If people change their tone when talking about a “friendployee” or talking to you about them, it’s time to start asking why.
- Quiet discussions about your “friendployee.” If you find people on the team mentioning your “friendployee” often, it’s for a good reason — and chances are it’s not because they’re impressed with your choices.
- Other team members are mimicking or copying the behavior of your “friendployee.” This behavior is typically a sign that this friend is strongly influencing the team dynamic. Are people showing up later than usual? Are they treating you like this “friendployee” does? Chances are this isn’t the direction you want to take the company as a whole — nip this in the bud before it becomes more difficult to change course. If the dynamic is something you want, then this isn’t a problem, I’m talking about if employees are exhibiting the bad habits of a “friendployee.”
I keep friendships that tend to be drama free, or at least not linked to myself and the friend, but we all know work can be a different monster. Deadline and vendor pressures, office politics, disputes, and don’t forget those office hook-ups (yeah, they still happen) that can plague a company. I can’t lie to you. I’ve seen some things in my day. Things can get dicey, and well — how much of this would you take in your relationships? When everything begins to stack up, will the friendship be strong enough to hold everything? Can you have a serious conversation about workplace issues with your “friendployee,” or will they even take what you have to say seriously? There’s always the chance that your “friendployee” is the one causing the drama, are you prepared to navigate those waters — will you make the right choice for your company when it comes to a top employee and your “friendployee” having a conflict?
Tips for keeping the drama llama away:
- Pay attention to the morale of your team. If you’re serious about building and maintaining a desirable company culture, a lot of the heavy-lifting happened during the hiring process. However, some things slip through the cracks, and it’s essential to be in a place where you can course-correct. If morale is declining, it can be for a few different reasons, one of them being a disruptive force within the ranks. Seek and destroy the “zed”.
- Be open, direct, honest, and available with your team. Creating a culture where your team isn’t afraid to approach you is critical to maintaining a pleasant working environment. When employees know you care, it tends to have a ripple effect that begins to push away the disruptors — or at least makes them more visible so you can handle the situation accordingly.
As a corporate officer and manager, there’s something we must adhere to — the concept of fiduciary duty. That means we must act in the best interest of the company. There are numerous opportunities to let bias get the best of you — promotions, compensation, and days off, to name a few. You will need to resist the temptation to play favorites because conflicts of interest can create a toxic workplace environment for those that aren’t in the secret handshake club — including the potential for lawsuits. There are numerous examples to point to when it comes to cronyism, and I’ve experienced the ill effects of it first hand. Look, sometimes your most talented or top employee will be a “friendployee,” but these are still murky waters to navigate.
How to avoid playing favorites:
- Be clear about your reasoning when selecting team members. When you make the criteria for selection about a performance mark, skill set, or something more tangible, you help alleviate concerns about cronyism and put your bias in check.
- Give your team a chance to volunteer. By opening assignments up to a group of competent members to request or volunteer for, you remove your own bias from the equation.
- Rotate assignments. You can always rotate tasks between your team members; this not only shows trust in everyone but creates an assignment structure that’s open and not about who’s getting picked.
- Don’t play favorites. No, seriously, stop picking your “friendployees” for raises, big assignments, golden parachutes, and whatever else, just because they’re your friend. Employees can see through fake excuses and reasoning, so don’t be that leader. We’ll talk about you for years to come for all the wrong reasons.
4. Blurred Lines
Friendships are built on trust, mutual respect, and more often than not, shared interests. Good friendships are like partnerships, but they’ll be nothing like a proper working relationship. In the business world, we have hierarchies — for a good reason. Your employees will more than likely never have an issue with this boundary, but there will come a time where a “friendployee” will test the boundaries between professional and personal. Setting clear expectations will be a complicated process, but it will make things better for everyone in the long run. Creating a clear boundary between what’s considered a part of your friendship and what’s business is critical.
How to maintain boundaries:
- Start with making the boundaries clear up-front. When you’re onboarding your “friendployee,” that’s when you should be having a conversation about boundaries. These boundaries are really up to you to define and discuss as each friendship is different. Ask your “friendployee” for their input on how you two should manage the friendship to work with the dynamic of working together.
- Remember you’re not the boss outside of work. The friendship dynamic must prevail when not working for this type of relationship to work. You can’t be out with friends and make quips about them being on time in the morning or some big report due at the end of the week. You’re also not working, so all you’re doing is showing how you don’t hold yourself to the same expectations. It also just makes things weird for everyone else.
- Don’t discuss work when out with your “friendployee.” If you’re spending time together as friends, “work” does not exist. If you must bring up work, make it about something involving the entire company, don’t dive into performance or tasks.
5. Firing Friends
I get asked about letting people go a lot when advising. The fun all comes to a jarring halt when someone gets cut from the squad. It’s no easy task to sit your buddy down and tell him to gather his things. Frankly, it’s going to painful when you have to fire him because he’s just not cutting the proverbial mustard. What’s worse, you may not expect your friend to be the rancorous type until he attempts to get back at you. You need to have thick skin to hire and fire, especially when it’s your friend. There’s a level of knowledge you have when firing a friend that makes it difficult. You likely know their financial situation, their family, their home life, and so many details that most managers never discover about their employees. Address these feelings and rise above intimate knowledge. You’re letting this person go for cause. Either their role is no longer necessary, you’re downsizing, or they’ve been an ongoing problem. It’s not your fault they’re being fired.
Tips for firing your friends:
- Treat them like any other employee. Do not deviate from your normal process here. Your employees need to see there was no preference given to this “friendployee,” and equally important for the “friendployee” to get treated like anyone else.
- Avoid talking about the incident with them. The “friendployee” will more than likely attempt to engage with you via text, phone, and social media. Protect yourself, your company, and potentially your friendship by not responding to anything about their dismissal.
- Avoid sharing any reason beyond what’s on record. First of all, if you fired someone for cause, it shouldn’t be a lie. You especially don’t want your friend to think they were fired for another reason than was given. It’s also important to remember that sharing details, in general, could open a can of worms for you and the company.
- Reopen full communication after a few weeks. I don’t advocate ghosting your friend, but give them some space to navigate being fired. You know all the emotions that come with being let go from a job, especially if you liked working for the company, or if being let go presents a hardship. Good friendships can survive setbacks like this.
- Be prepared to lose friends. This one sucks to say, but I’ve lost several friends because of this situation. Whether they didn’t believe I was serious when I gave them warnings, or they felt like they had immunity, I’ll never know. Then there’s the collateral damage of shared friends who may not care what your side of the story is. Look, things might get awkward for a bit, but if you maintain a level of professionalism, you’ll come out of everything okay. Don’t defend your decisions with other friends. It’s personal business between your company and a former employee at this point, and you’ll do more harm than good trying to explain.
Wrapping Things Up
When friends approach me for jobs or work, I tend to use the line, “I’ll let you know if something opens up.” If I hire friends, I have made it a practice to put them in a position that is low-impact before letting them loose upon the company. Giving them smaller tasks allows me to see if they’re in it for the passion — not just because they want to do something cool at a startup or with a friend. More often than not, I find they become very careless about their work, and that inevitably leads to their firing. In short, I’m not particularly eager to hire friends. I will work with one as a co-founder and partner, but history tells me that having a “friendployee” doesn’t work.
So, should you hire your friends? That’s really up to you. If you feel you are ready for the challenges, and that you can overcome and succeed — I say go for it. Just remember one thing — for better or worse, the decision you make to hire a friend will change the course of your relationship forever.
As always, thank you for reading, thank you for caring, build something awesome.