The Politics of Friends

I’ve spoken about the pains of job anxiety when it comes to thinking about moving to new pastures or coming to the end of tenure in a recent article, but it seems prevalent to now discuss a similar level of apprehension that comes with taking the first steps in a different organisation. The excitement of opportunity can spur you on to get stuck in and make your mark, but even the best new working environment can bring a few jitters. You can start finding yourself asking questions such as what if I don’t fit the culture of my new role? What if I don’t create good working relationships? What if I don’t make the impact I’m hoping to? It’s natural to worry a little in these situations, but one of the biggest problems with thinking like this is that it can trick top level management in new positions into reverting to type, dragging along old friends to join them in their venture as a glorified cheerleader rather than potential asset. This sort of nepotistic nightmare can severely damage a company’s momentum, consolidating a new executive’s comfort zone instead of serving stakeholder interests. It’s the reason so many brilliant companies in New Zealand start to slow when there’s a change of the guard. That’s not to say I advocate for never taking on a friend or colleague if they have the skills, experience and commercial nous to thrive in a given position, but C-Suiters should reflect on whether they are really overhauling teams for the company’s benefit or if it is a superficial swap that only serves their own interests – especially considering that things can soon go downhill if their friends aren’t the right fit for their new role.

The first issue is that friends may not have what it takes to be able to provide in their new role. Considering that the culprits of hiring people they know are often found to ‘Hesitate to drill down into their competencies and workplace experiences as [they] would for any other candidate’[1] (Forbes, 2019), it is quite easy to see why friends are unlikely to perform, but could that be avoided? Of course it could be if you could ‘Objectively assess their qualifications against other candidates’[2]and put the company first, but as to how many would be willing and able to do so, it remains to be seen.

So you’ve hired your friend, having scrutinised their CV, track record and personality traits and things seem to be going all right – perhaps even better than all right considering some researchers suggest that there is a ‘Quantifiable link between friendship and business results’[3] with ‘Profitability and customer loyalty’[4] being ‘Strongly associated with a high incidence of best friends in the workplace’[5] (Gallup, 2019). Is that the end to any potential problems then? Sadly not. If you’re the one that’s actively brought your friend across rather than through diligent hiring practices following a recommendation, two major issues can arise:

· A fall in morale because, try as you might to assure otherwise, there is a sense of ‘Perceived favouritism’[6] or a sense of a ‘Patent lack of fairness’[7] (Gill Corkindale, 2007).

· You and your friend take on a ‘Dual relationship’[8] of both friends and boss/employee, whereby ‘When you have more than one relationship…goals can conflict and cause serious problems for a therapeutic engagement’[9] (Harvard Business Review, 2018). In laymen’s terms: it can be strange transitioning from a more social side to your friend being your formal leader and providing you with business direction.

In the case of the former, it can be difficult to break such stigma, but, thankfully, there are ways to alleviate this: the major part being setting ‘Clear expectations and boundaries’[10] so that other employees know ‘When you have your “supervisor hat” or “leadership t-shirt” on’[11] (Harvard Business Review, 2015). When it comes to work, work comes first so make sure everybody knows that because it should be your business running on full, not the rumour mill.

When it comes to handling the transition from friend to boss, the solution is much akin to my last point: nip the problem in the bud before it has chance to affect not only your relationship, but company performance. The way to do this is by opening the communication channel so that your new employee understands full well what the new relationship dynamic will be like, detailing what is and isn’t acceptable during working hours and what can be done if things do unfortunately go wrong.

Nepotism can be a difficult minefield to traverse and it’s for this reason that I would urge others to reconsider hiring friends and to double check that they really will be an asset to the new company – especially if you are a new executive and you’ve a lot to do to impress in the first 100 days. After all, what might seem like a comfort and an aid to ease you in at first, could end up being the albatross around your neck in the future.


[1] Jeff Hyman, Friends Don't Let Friends Hire Their Friends,, (New York: Forbes Media, 2019). [2]Ibid. [3] Susan Ellingwood, The Collective Advantage: Contrary to Popular Belief, Workplace Friendships Boost Profit, Gallup Business Journal, (Washington: Gallup, Inc., 2001). [4]Ibid. [5]Ibid. [6] Gill Corkindale, Nepotism: Wrong for the Workplace?, Morning Edition, (Washington: NPR, 2007). [7] Ibid. [8] Art Markman, Why Work Friendships Go Awry, and How to Prevent It,, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing 2018). [9]Ibid. [10]Bill Gentry, Navigating the Transition from Friend to Boss,, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing 2015). [11]Ibid.