How to Manage and Discipline Like a Boss, Not a Friend
Thanks to Connecting Directors contributing writer Beth Campagno for this article!
Being a boss has a lot of perks, like good pay, recognition, and maybe even a prime parking spot. However, you know what they say — it’s lonely at the top. You have responsibilities and keep company secrets you can’t share with most of the people you work with. You also have to make tough decisions, even some involving people you consider not only coworkers, but friends. It can be quite a tightrope to walk.
In fact, the entire boss/friend relationship is fraught with danger. Your subordinate/pal may assume your friendship entitles them to advantages like insight into manager-level information or preferential treatment. Even worse, your other employees might think the same thing, which can set off undercurrents of resentment and a perception of unfair treatment. These are problems no one wants in the workplace — especially the boss. And what happens when your buddy becomes a disciplinary problem?
Drawing a line between friendship and authority can be tough, and reprimanding a friend who’s also an employee could be even harder. So how do you manage and discipline as a boss, not like a friend?
How it happens
The best way to handle the friend/boss conundrum is to prevent it from getting to that point in the first place. For example, if you do the hiring, you could avoid recruiting and selecting friends, family, or relatives of employees. Unfortunately, that can be difficult in deathcare, where so many operations are family-owned or employ multiple generations. Plus, sometimes your best prospects come from employee referrals.
You should also try not to become close friends with existing coworkers. However, sometimes work relationships naturally develop into friendships (ever heard the expression “my best friend at work”?). It’s tough not to be friends with the people with whom you share such an emotional roller coaster of experiences that other people in your life simply can’t understand.
What if you were friends with a coworker, but then you’re promoted and become their supervisor? Of course, you could avoid the situation by declining the promotion. Realistically, though, are you supposed to tell your new subordinate that he or she is no longer your friend? That sounds a little second-grade. Plus, there are better ways to deal with the transition.
How to draw the line
Some people handle managing a friend with no issues at all. They respect their working relationship and keep their personal friendship completely separate. When that’s not the case, here are a few ways to tactfully (and legally) address the situation:
- Only hire a friend or family member if the person is truly the best candidate, with the right skills and attitude for the job.
- As soon as possible during the hiring process or after your promotion, have a frank discussion with our friend to discuss your respective expectations regarding your status as friends/coworkers and ensure they agree.
- Provide regular feedback to all employees equally throughout the year; feedback should never come as a surprise.
- Outline performance expectations, policies, separation of personal vs. business, etc. and ensure their understanding and compliance.
- Never make promises or treat the friend any differently than other employees.
- Be clear about your position. “Speaking as your manager….” or “Speaking as your friend…”.
- Address concerns immediately. They usually don’t go away on their own. Be empathetic but remind them about the agreed-upon expectations.
How to discipline like a boss
Let’s say you follow all the steps above, but your friend does or says something that requires performance management. This is a much more palatable term than “discipline.” It also incorporates the coaching aspect of reprimanding someone. You may have to tell someone they’re breaking a rule, but hopefully you’re also showing or sharing with them how to keep it from happening again.
Remember: Most employees want to do a good job. Tell them exactly what they can or need to do to be successful in your company. Tell them often, in person, and in writing so there’s no mistake, and when you’re having those conversations, speak with authority. Be professional and businesslike, and don’t rehash old conversations or excuses.
When “performance managing” someone who is also your friend, it’s easy to bring up things you might know about the person’s behavior or personality outside of work. However, you must focus ONLY on the behavior or performance as it relates to the job. Now is not the time to argue or disagree about personal or extraneous issues. Focus on their ability to perform to the essential functions of the job and the agreed-upon expectations. Engage them in solving the problem, as appropriate, and ask them for their input.
Bottom line on discipline
No matter who you’re reprimanding, you must follow your organization’s disciplinary policy in exactly the same way. When you’re dealing with personal relationships, this can be difficult. You don’t want to damage a long-held friendship or create a rift in the family. Just try to remain objective. As difficult as the process may be or as badly as you may feel, you didn’t cause this situation.
Depending on the circumstances, you may rely on a higher-level manager, someone with your same level of authority, or even outside party to administer discipline or a termination. This is a good option to ensure impartiality and may be legally defensible. Even this scenario can present problems for your friendship, though. Your friend may resent that you didn’t address them yourself.
In the end, there is only so much you can do in this situation. If you approach your friend the same way you approach all employees (and that should be in a good way), it’s all you can do. And, if you’ve done everything you can and they’re really a friend, they should understand your position.
If they don’t, you may find that you really weren’t such good friends to begin with.