“It breaks my heart that we’re no longer in touch,” says Linda “Tish” Tisherman, of a 20-year friendship that soured over business. After hiring—and then firing—her best friend, the 63-year-old president and founder of Los Angeles-based Staff Support, Inc., vowed never again to mix pals with professionalism.
While working with friends seems sensible—after all, you already like each other—it often complicates matters, says Jane Cranston, an executive career coach in New York City.
In Tisherman’s case, her friend was a senior professional she thought capable of running a satellite office. But when the two offices had to be combined, her colleague couldn’t handle the new arrangement. “She felt like she was no longer in charge,” Tisherman remembers. “Her work performance suffered.”
After several discussions, the two women decided to part professional ways. The friendship was damaged but not yet lost; Tisherman even allowed her friend to stay on her company’s health insurance plan. “She was like a sister to me, so I agreed to cover her as long as she paid for it.” Within three months, though, the payments were unmet and her friend dropped out of sight.
While this is an extreme case of goodwill gone bad, it’s common for friendships to get in the way at work. Buddies may expect favors from each other. Bosses may be too lenient—or too tough—on their pals. Even among friends at the same level, resentfulness can destroy the friendship if one person is promoted and the other is not, says Susan Wise Miller, a career counselor in private practice in Los Angeles.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of an irresolvable fight. “Last year two of my employees started socializing outside of work and became very close,” says Miller. But a falling out led to one woman stomping out of the office and abandoning her job for a week. “The turmoil took up my time and made other employees uncomfortable,” Miller says. “Ultimately I had to fire one of them.”
Still, says Cranston, it is possible to mix business with pleasure. She and Miller share their tips below.
Establish boundaries sooner rather than later.
Before offering (or accepting) to work with a friend, Cranston suggests saying, “Our relationship is important to me. I’m hesitant to work together because I’d never want to do anything to jeopardize what we’ve built.” Then outline your concerns and come up with a plan to handle disagreements. How you will manage the inevitable conflicts that arise?
Get a group consensus.
If you’re considering hiring a friend, make sure the rest of your team is on board, says Miller. Ask other people in your office to interview her to make sure everyone gets along. “In a small business, you want the entire team’s buy-in.”
Implement a trial period.
Before committing to anything long-term, ask your friend to sign a three-month contract, says Miller. “Explain that it’s intended to help both of you evaluate whether the arrangement will work, then agree to revisit at the end of the probationary period.”
Keep work and personal lives separate.
Promise each other not to discuss work issues outside of the office. On the flip side, don’t let personal matters infiltrate the workplace. That doesn’t mean you can’t exchange pleasantries about what you did over the weekend, says Cranston. Just leave out the intimate details.
Don’t broadcast your friendship.
If you’re the employee, never drop your boss’s name to get an edge, warns Miller. Your coworkers might think you are relying on favoritism. Even if you do a stellar job, you may not get the credit you deserve—but you may get some of the wrath.
Avoid becoming too chummy with people.
Be careful not to reveal things about your life, says Cranston. “You can’t take back what others already know—that you’ve been divorced three times, that your husband is out drinking every night, that the kids are running away—so don’t spill in the first place.’” An employee’s perceived instability can be used against her (even unfairly). Don’t give colleagues ammunition just because you’re feeling friendly.
Stick to business.
If you have to confront a friend regarding her disappointing work performance, make the conversation about behavior rather than personality, says Cranston. For example: “You said we were on top of our deadline, and now you are telling me we are a week late. How did that happen?” Stick to the facts and keep emotion out of it, she advises.
If, after all this, the arrangement is not mutually satisfactory, walk away. “I think most mature people understand that we all have different work styles,” says Cranston. “If things don’t mesh in an office scenario, it’s not a reflection of how someone feels about another person.”