3 Keys to Working With Your Friends

In a previous post, we discussed whether or not working with your friends is an act of nepotism. We discovered in the post that, if the friendship is incidental to the hiring, it is not an act of nepotism, and it can be of great use to an institution. But if the person gets the job primarily because he/she is your friend, that would not be appropriate. Many people believe that nepotism is simply the act of hiring a family member or friend. This is not so. Nepotism is giving favoritism to family members and friends in professional settings, which, of course, has the potential to take many forms.

Of course, hiring your friend is a different animal than working with your friend. You may inherit a friend as a co-worker or an employee, if he or she already works at a place where you are hired. That is what happened with my friend Gabriel and me the first time we worked together. I took a job at a school where he already worked. Also, he wasn’t the principal of that school, so he had nothing to do with my getting the job. Again, our working together was incidental. Yet, there we were, across the hall from each other, having to work with the same students. Some of what I learned from this experience can potentially help you to navigate the waters of working with a friend, whether the friend is your colleague or your employee. Based on my experience, you need 3 things in order to work effectively with your friends.

1. Genuine respect for each others’ professional ability

The first and most important factor you need in order to work effectively with a friend is a healthy sense of professional respect for one another. That doesn’t mean you have to agree on every issue (see item 3 below), but it does mean that you have to believe in each other as professionals. In other words, working effectively with a friend will only be possible if you think your friend does good work, and you think the same thing about your friend. Gabriel and I never would have had as much fun as we had, and we never would have been able to remain effective if I thought he was a bad teacher or if he thought I was one. Instead, I thought Gabriel was an excellent teacher and he shared the same opinion about my ability. Thus, we sought each other for advice about lesson plans, classroom activities, and student behavior management. We trusted each other with our career and financial plans. And our mutual respect for each other as professionals helped us to develop our friendship even more by adding another dimension to it.

2. Clear separation between what is appropriate in your professional relationship and what is appropriate in your friend relationship

The second important factor you need in order to work effectively with your friend is a clear line of delineation between what is appropriate at work and what is appropriate outside of work. If you are genuine friends, undoubtedly you have aspects of your relationship that are not appropriate for the workplace, if only because those things distract from your ability to do your job. This makes it necessary to separate work from play, so to speak, in order to remain effective in your jobs. This especially applies in cases when you become friends after you become co-workers. If your relationship history begins with your working together and blossoms from there, it is perhaps even more necessary to draw clear lines between your work interactions and your outside of work interactions. For Gabriel and me, this ability to separate things grew out of the professional respect we developed for each other once we saw each other in action. In all honesty, our first few weeks working together, while we were still unsure about each other’s professional ability, Gabriel and I had little to talk about at work besides our history as friends. Not all of those topics of conversation were appropriate for the workplace. But as we grew professionally, our friendship grew as well.

3. The ability to honestly disagree with each other

The third important factor in maintaining effectiveness while working with friends develops naturally out of the first two. If you respect each other professionally, and you can keep work and play separate, you should also be able to disagree on matters of importance without negatively affecting your friendship. This ability to disagree will serve you well, especially if your working relationship is subordinate in nature. If you work for your friend or your friend works for you, this ability to disagree is critical to your long term success. Indeed, you don’t want to agree with each other just because your friends. That will weaken both your organization and, in time, your friendship. You also don’t want to disagree for personal reasons; it will have the same negative effect. Besides, it won’t take long for everyone around you to see that your personal relationship is more important than your professional one. Your colleagues will quickly resent your professional affiliation once it becomes clear that it is subordinate to your friendship. For Gabriel and me, my ability to honestly disagree with him served both him and the school we served together very well. As Gabriel’s Vice Principal, I was in a unique position to advise him on how best to handle nearly every issue the school faced. I had to be able to tell him what I thought would and would not work, even if it was at odds with his idea. Because he knew that I was good at my job (factor 1) and that I was not advising him based on our friendship (factor 2), he was able to weigh my advice effectively and make a better decision. Sometimes my idea was better and sometimes his was better; sometimes he changed his course and sometimes he didn’t; but over the course of 3 years working together as Principal and Vice Principal, Gabriel and I did a great deal of good work in advancing the school.

The truth is, our effectiveness as a team is owed, at least in part, to our close friendship. We have been helping each other get better since before we were in high school. Whether it was on the basketball court, with the girls we were dating, and yes, even in class, Gabriel and I have a long history of holding each other to a high standard of excellence, then helping each other actually reach our goals. If you are in a position to work with a friend, make sure it is one you can respect professionally, one with whom you can separate work from play, and one with whom you can honestly disagree. Add to this an employment that is not based on your friendship, i.e. completely devoid of nepotism, and you have a recipe for some great work and a lot of fun working with your friend!