How to Hold Employees Accountable … When They’re Also Your Friends

Managers, especially newly-promoted managers, tell me every day about confrontations with employees who, when held accountable for their actions, turn around and protest, “But I thought we were friends!”

This is what I tell them.

Say to that employee, “Hey, next week, we are not going to pay you, but what I was wondering if you’d be willing to come in and work really hard anyway to make me look good…you know, since we are such good friends.” What do you think that employee would say? “Hey buddy, no hard feelings, but this is a job! I need to get paid for the work I do!”

And that’s what you, the manager, should say to employees who try to use your friendship as a way out of being held accountable at work. “No hard feelings, but I’m the boss.”

Often, people become friends, or at least friendly, in the course of working together. Sometimes the friendship predates the working relationship. Either way, it can be hard to separate your role as a boss from your role as a friend. But the simple fact is that you have to do it anyway.

First, decide which is more important to you. If the friendship is truly more important, maybe you shouldn’t be the boss. Accept the fact that that role might compromise or damage the friendship. Maybe you’ll decide that you cannot risk your friendship and cannot work with that friend at all. Or maybe you’ll decide that you cannot risk your friendship, and thus you don’t want to be their boss. But someone has to be the boss. Wouldn’t it be ironic if you turn down the job and your friend ends up being your boss instead of the other way around?

Second, protect the friendship by establishing ground rules that keep the roles separate. One restaurant manager told me about a good friend with lots of experience who wanted to work for her. She hired the friend, but made the ground rules very clear: “Our friendship is very important to me. My job is also very important to me, and around here I am the boss. When we are here at work, I need to be the boss. When we are outside work, we try to leave that behind.”

Third, protect the friendship by being a good boss. Make sure things go really well at work, and there will be less opportunity for work-related conflict in your personal relationship.

Fourth, recognize and embrace the fact that the work you and your friend have in common may become more and more the terrain of your friendship. That’s okay. With any luck, you both find the work you share to be interesting and important. If your friendship developed at work in the first place, the work you have in common was your original connection anyway. If you friendship predates the work relationship, then your friendship is likely going to change, at least a little bit. At work, you can continue to maintain your rapport and build your friendship around the work. Outside of work, unless you make an ironclad rule against it, you will probably discuss work also.

As much as you try to keep work separate from your friendship, the boundaries will always be somewhat fuzzy. The best you can do is honor your friendship by being a great boss and hope that your friend will honor your friendship by giving you their best efforts every day.