Working with friends and family
Can you manage your friend and say when she or he is causing problems? Can you do this to your partner and then share a bed later?
We work with many firms where friends either got together to launch the endeavours or partners came in to work there very early on. Others have hired their relatives, partners or friends – or people personally connected to their colleagues. Inevitably you might become friends or have relationships with colleagues over time too.
There are big advantages to hiring people you already know: as with people recommending former colleagues, the potential new recruit comes in relatively pre-screened and with some understanding of your business, as well as possibly knowing whether or not their skillsets and experiences make them a good fit, and hopefully you do too.
If it’s your friend or relative, you know what they’re like … except you probably don’t know what they’ll be like to work with. You might have a few surprises along the way.
We helped a client who hired and then had to fire one of his oldest and closest friends. Within months, their relationship had changed to “boss and employee” and the manager struggled to cope with that, as well as with the regular criticisms and arguments. The experience made him re-evaluate everything his friend had said over the years about his previous workplaces: had he really worked before with such terrible people or, having seen it for himself, was the friend repeating a pattern of being difficult to work with?
So before you get into it, think about what would happen if it goes wrong. Not in an explosive way, but just day-to-day dealing with problems. Can you sit across a table and argue with people who are close to you in personal ways? Can you fire your partner?
We’ve been there and done that: helped with difficulties when work and personal relationships are blurred, but for business reasons the work relationship has to change. It’s rarely going to go smoothly for anyone involved and, of course, people worry about a lasting negative impact on those personal relationships.
If it’s a relative, you might fall out but you’ll probably still see them at family events – so prepare yourself to experience a former employee glaring across the room at you and inevitably your other relatives taking sides or possibly criticising you.
One of our clients has become a family business organically, with people’s children, cousins and siblings, as well as friends, joining the staff over time. The employees who don’t have a family member working there are in a minority, including in the management team. It includes the challenging dynamics of people having to manage or work closely with their children, siblings and old friends.
Another firm has a group of friends but one is the company owner and has to take sides when there are disagreements and make decisions about his friends’ pay.
It’s potentially terrible for any hope of a work-life balance if you’re living and working together – if you go home and carry on talking about work. Try to stick to a “no work at home” agreement.
Here are some golden rules:
- Get it in writing: employment contracts and any other relevant agreements (eg director or shareholder agreements) from day one. If you fall out, these are the legal agreements you’ll need to make everything less messy.
- Treat them as employees and don’t show favouritism: everyone’s watching and if you treat your nephew or friend’s daughter more leniently while disciplining other people for similar issues, then it backfires on you.
- Don’t let “personal” affect work: easier said than done, but the biggest risk is letting things drift because, understandably, any issue that risks souring a personal relationship will worry you more. But the longer it builds up, the bigger the problem. Try using a comparison to see things clearly: what would you do about the issue if it involved a different employee?
- Work is work: in your personal life, they are your relative or friend when you’re together – so don’t talk about work. “Save it for Monday” is a useful catchphrase to repeat if the issue crops up.
Final piece of advice: it’s only if things go badly wrong that you have to accept the inevitable truth – whatever you were before you started working together, you’re now “the boss” and you have to act like it. If your actions are fair and reasonable, you might be able to pick up the pieces if, in the short-term, your nearest isn’t your dearest for a while.
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