Be Careful When Hiring a Friend

In my last post, “Learning from Mistakes,” I discussed a question I like to ask interview candidates: “What is the biggest mistake you’ve made?” and promised to explain how I would answer that same question.

Before finishing, I’ll equivocate a little bit.  I’d probably answer differently depending on who asked the question.  Is the questioner going to be my boss, my peer, or my subordinate?   I would want to choose something that would be directly relevant.  Having said all that, there are several situations I would consider, but there’s one that stands out to me.

My wife and I were good friends with our next-door neighbors (I’ll call them Connie and Phil).  We had barbecues together and celebrated birthdays together.  Phil and I even took turns cutting each other’s lawns (allowing us each to face that chore only half as often).  We were all close friends.

Connie was a talented and ambitious manager.  She was professional, organized, and well-spoken.  We had talked frequently about our jobs and I was consistently impressed with her descriptions of how she handled herself at work.  She had recently left her job, taking time off to have a baby.

At the time, I was VP of Engineering for a software company (but not the one where I currently work).  My responsibilities had just expanded to include Technical Documentation, as well as Software Localization.  Both functions were new for our company and we didn’t have anyone internally to oversee them.  I needed to hire some help.

One weekend, as the four of us enjoyed a bottle (or two) of wine, we were discussing these changes.  I explained that I needed to hire a new Documentation Manager.  Connie asked if I’d consider hiring her. I was intrigued, but hesitant.  She had never been a Documentation Manager (although both she and Phil had done a lot of technical writing, so she knew quite a bit about the function).  In addition, she was my friend – if it didn’t work out, would it damage our friendship?  What about her friendship with my wife – would that be impacted?

Fast forward a few weeks – we interviewed Connie, everyone thought she was great, and I hired her.  It started off well and we commuted to work together.

As I already knew, she really was talented and she was very organized.  She created a solid organization structure, hired some good tech writers, put standards and processes in place, and had things on the right track.

Fast forward a bit more – it didn’t take long for problems to surface.  Within just a few months, Connie began pushing for broader power and more responsibility.  “Daryl – why not give me Localization too?”  “Hey Daryl, how come Henry is a Director and I’m just a Manager?”  “You know, Daryl, I’m worth more than you’re paying me.”

Fast forward to the end, less than six months later – it didn’t end well.  I resisted Connie’s pleas for more power, more money, more control – and she resented that.  Our friendship frayed.  Her work began to suffer – she wasn’t as committed or focused and it showed.  I took too long to confront the problems and address the issues (largely because I was struggling to separate “being Connie’s boss” from “being Connie’s friend”).  I allowed her to make poor decisions without correcting them.  I didn’t address questionable managerial decisions quickly enough. Finally, Connie saved me from my own neglect by resigning and moving on to another job (with the Director title that was so important to her).  Our friendship was irreparably fractured and, fairly quickly, her friendship with my wife dissolved as well.

What did I learn from this experience?  There’s the obvious: be very careful before hiring a friend to work for you.  I’m not saying never to do it.  Obviously, it can work and can be very successful, but it’s risky. More importantly, it showed me (painfully) how damaging it can be when I let personal feelings (“being Connie’s friend”) prevent me from making good business decisions.

In my next post, I’ll discuss a very different situation of managing a friend – one with a much better outcome.

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

When hiring a friend, be wary of the possible consequences.  After hiring that friend, stay aware to avoid letting the friendship cloud your decision making.

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