How To Discipline an Employee That’s a Friend

One of the drawbacks of being in management is that you’re occasionally put in awkward positions, especially if your company has a culture that encourages friendships among its employees. In fact, the subject of performance management in a friendly office culture isn’t discussed as often as you’d expect given how much anxiety it causes many managers. Managers lucky enough to receive on-the-job management training rarely receive guidance in this area other than generalized advice to keep things from getting personal… which is much, much easier said than done.

It’s difficult enough to maintain a healthy manager-report relationship when you’re both friends given certain privileges you may have that your friend doesn’t, like access to confidential information and invites to managers-only events. But probably the most difficult situation is when the need arises for you to give your friend negative feedback, put them on a performance plan, or discipline them according to company guidelines.

Here are some tips for navigating a tough conversation with your friend and report:

1. Be honest and timely. You might be tempted to put off this impending responsibility, but putting off the inevitable is just going to cause you more anxiety. Ultimately, your co-workers, your boss, and even your friend are going to be better off if you confront this situation honestly and in a timely manner. Even if your friend is angry at first, he or she will eventually respect the fact that you didn’t BS or sidestep the issue. Plus, having tough conversations is one of the reasons that you are most likely paid more than your friend is. Face your responsibility head on and do your job.

2. Prepare. The best way to make sure that this conversation goes as smoothly as possible is to prepare ahead of time:

  • First, review the details: Why exactly are you having this talk? Have you noticed the quality of their work has suffered lately? Have other employees registered complaints? Is this about a specific incident that was reported to you or to the executive team? Get your facts straight and have several examples ready (if applicable). The more information you have, the easier it will be to keep your dialogue focused on work.
  • Read over HR policies regarding the problem at hand as well as how friendships between reports and managers are to be handled. Most likely, your HR department only has guidelines surrounding romantic relationships, but make sure to confirm that. If you have any questions or could use some face-to-face assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to the HR dept.
  • Compose an objective for your conversation. What do you hope to accomplish in your conversation with your friend? Do you need to get them to sign a Performance Plan? Do you need to make sure they understand certain feedback? How will you know when you’ve completed your objective? Figuring this out ahead of time will help you to keep the meeting on track.
  • Do not tell anyone else, besides your own manager and/or HR about this talk, especially not your mutual friends or family. One way to make this situation worse is discussing it with people that you and your report both know. Imagine how you would feel if you found out that everyone you care about knew about a problem you were having at work and talking about it behind your back? If your friend wants to talk to others about it after your conversation is over, leave that decision up to him or her.

3. Be direct, fact-driven, professional and empathetic. One of the benefits to your existing friendship is that you have a better idea of how this conversation might affect your rapport. Use this to your advantage by thinking about what it will be like to be in their shoes. Not only are they receiving negative feedback or disciplinary action, but they might feel even worse knowing that their friend AND boss is disappointed. However, don’t let your empathy keep you from staying on task and professional. If you start to feel the conversation is getting too personal, remember your objective. Because you are friends, he or she might get emotional during this conversation. Be sympathetic, but don’t let it keep you from accomplishing your goal before ending the conversation.

4. Emphasize their autonomy. This conversation is likely to make your friend feel disempowered, especially if you are distilling disciplinary action. Be sure to remind them that they have options. If they feel awkward because of your existing friendship, suggest that they talk to HR. Let them make suggestions for ways to achieve change or to help them with their work performance issue. Show them that this dialogue can be the start of a positive change for their career.

5. End the conversation once your objective has been achieved. Don’t drag on the meeting, which is likely to make things even more uncomfortable with your report. Resist the urge to apologize to them or nag them about how they are feeling. Let them be in charge of their own next steps.

6. Lay low socially. After your conversation, it’s natural to want to spring right back into your social circle to prove that nothing has changed between you and your friend, but resist this urge. Even if everything goes perfectly well, it’s normal for your friend to need some time to digest your conversation and move on, and that is best achieved through distance. Giving your friend the space that’s needed will not only help speed up the “moving on” process, but it will also show him or her that you respect them as a person and co-worker. Plus, it will prevent the rest of your mutual friends from feeling super awkward.

7. Trust. If your friendship is worth a dime, then it will survive this difficult conversation. Trust that your friend is mature, smart and understanding enough to handle this bump in the road. You’ll both emerge stronger than before and so will your friendship.

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