Excel at the Job Jun 01 2010

When Your Friend Becomes Your Boss

By liz garone

People who have close friendships with their bosses are twice as likely to be satisfied with their jobs, according to research by the Gallup Organization and Tom Rath, author of "Vital Friends: The People You Can't Afford to Live Without." So, while the idea of a friend turned boss might sound appealing, there are a number of possible pitfalls to avoid to help ensure a good friendship-work dynamic.

"People get more enjoyment from cleaning the house than spending time with their boss. But we all love spending time with friends," says Rath. He says a fusion of the two is "probably not a bad thing" if you remember where your relationship started and how to keep work and play separate.

Separation of Church and State

No matter how tempting it is, avoid talking about work when you're together away from the office. Otherwise, you'll end up polluting both relationships. When Rich Thompson, vice president of training and development for Adecco Group North America, hired a friend to work under him, the time they spent together away from work became difficult to define. "It can be a tricky situation," says Thompson. So, whenever the two would get together, they would start out by defining the visit as either all business or all friendship. "It sounds goofy, but it really did work well that way," says Thompson. "It had to be all or nothing."

Be Careful What You Say

Confessing to your peer friend that someone made an unwelcome advance after a few too many beers at the company picnic takes on a whole new meaning when it becomes a formal complaint, sometimes "triggering an investigation" when told to someone with managerial responsibilities, says workplace bias consultant Freada Klein. "Finance professionals often have higher standards for disclosures of anything that may constitute a conflict of interest," she says. "In becoming a manager, one also becomes bound by different legal considerations." So, you'll need to be more careful about what you do – and don't -- say around your friend turned boss.

Avoiding Denial

It's easy to be in denial about how a promotion could affect a relationship. It's common to hear the line, "I got the title, but nothing's really going to change," says Thompson. "But, that's impossible. It doesn't happen that way." Rather than ignoring the relationship's new dynamics and stresses, it's much healthier and more productive to verbalize expectations of each other. "Have a proactive conversation about how you each want to handle the changed relationship," advises Klein. "[Don't] pretend that nothing has changed, and that 'we can all be professional and separate personal from business.'"

Being Considerate of Your Colleagues

It is also important to be aware of the impression you are giving co-workers, says Jan Yager, author of "When Friendship Hurts." Don't start discussing your weekend plans together in earshot of others. "You want to be really careful of not being perceived as misusing the friendship in the workplace," she says.

Same Rules Apply

Many people mistakenly think that with a friend as boss, they will be able to get away with more. "Resist the urge to kick up your feet. Keep doing your job, working hard, and even offer to do extra work to help out your friend," says Eve Tahmincioglu, author of "From the Sandbox to the Corner Office." Remember, if the boss is successful, you will be, too. If the boss fails, you, too, may be out of a job.


Even if you're happy for your friend, you may feel a tinge of jealousy. It's important to recognize it and get over it. "Be happy for your friend and move on," says Tahmincioglu. If you're in a larger company and are now working for a friend, it's even more critical to keep jealousy at bay. Otherwise, say experts, you're likely to hurt the business and your work could suffer.

You might not agree with everything your boss does, but try to be as positive as possible. "You might find out things about your friend you never knew and don't like," says Tahmincioglu. "But, go into those first few months with big fat pompoms to cheer on your new boss."

Keep it Professional

Remain objective and calm. With a friend, there's often little room for confrontation or awkward interaction. "You have to figure out how to spar and disagree without threatening the friendship," says Anderson, who left his friend's company and is now vice president of development for Marketo, a San Mateo, Calif., start-up. His advice: Focus on the end result, which will make it easier to keep perspective. Also key is maintaining objectivity on both sides, says Rath, especially when it comes to performance evaluation.

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