Working With Your Friends - Is It Nepotism?

When I was a teacher a particular private school, I had a unique opportunity. I was hired to teach English, and across the hall was the classroom of the History teacher, who happened to be one of my closest friends named Gabriel. Gabriel and I became friends when we were 8th grade classmates, and we stayed close throughout the years. We attended the same high school and played on the same basketball team. We attended different colleges, but we even stayed close in spite of the miles between us. When the time came, I stood among his groomsmen at his wedding. Years later, he would repay me the same honor. His wife calls me “brother” and his children call me “uncle,” even though we are not actually related. Yes, it was a unique opportunity indeed, and it was glorious. Gabriel and I were in high school together again, but this time we were teachers instead of students.

Our students observed our interaction and it helped to inform their goals. Instead of speaking only of making money, our students talked about wanting to work with their friends. They saw the fun Gabriel and I were having while maintaining our effectiveness as teachers and employees of the school, and they wanted to be like us. Unfortunately, Gabriel and I were together at that particular school for only 1 year. He completed his graduate degree in Administration and took a position as the Principal of an elementary school in California. I took a position as English Department Chair and Lead Teacher at a high school in Georgia. Two years later, Gabriel accepted a principal position at a K-12 school in Alabama, and he had to fill out his administrative staff. The Superintendent asked him who he wanted to be his Vice Principal and he suggested my name. I accepted the position and we were reunited once again, this time as the leaders of a school, the largest and most influential school in its conference. Gabriel and I worked together as Principal and Vice Principal for 3 years before I left that position to start my own company: Virtual VP, Inc.

I give you this background information so that you recognize my position when I say that it can be an excellent idea to work with your friends, but only if your working relationship meets some very important requirements. Indeed, my use of the term “friend” has serious implications. I am talking about someone you actually enjoy spending time with, and who you genuinely like. I am talking about someone with whom you intentionally spend time outside of work because you want to, not because you have to. I am talking about someone who knows at least a few things about you that are not common knowledge. You and the “friend” I am talking about do not have to be as close to each other as Gabriel and I are, having over 20 years of close friendship behind us before ever working together, but you do have to have each other’s back.

In order to remain effective in your job when you have a friend as a colleague or an employee, your working together cannot be an act of nepotism. In other words, your working together cannot be based on the fact that you’re friends; your friendship must be incidental. If your friendship is driving the working relationship in any way, both the organization and your friendship will most likely suffer. You’ve seen it, haven’t you? You can think of a person who is not effective in his/her position, but is not reprimanded or fired because of his/her relationship to someone in charge. That is the essence of nepotism. The organization is being held hostage by some relationship. In the case of a school, the biggest losers are the students who ultimately don’t receive the education they deserve.

In our case, Gabriel and I worked together the first time and our principal didn’t even know we were friends when she hired me. Gabriel had already been there for a few years when they hired me, and our friendship had nothing to do with why I was hired. This is what I mean by incidental. The second time Gabriel and I worked together was similarly incidental. Gabriel did suggest my name to the Superintendent, but in order to get the job as his Vice Principal I had to earn it. I was interviewed by two separate committees, including the School Board, and I was not the only qualified candidate for the position. I was offered the job because I was qualified; I took the job because I wanted to do it. Again, our friendship was incidental to my working for Gabriel as his Vice Principal. In both cases, our friendship did not prevent us from having fierce or difficult conversations with each other about the work we were doing. 

Working with a friend can be a lot of fun if the positions of employment can be gained honestly and without nepotism. While qualified, effective friends working together can be extremely beneficial for an institution, unqualified, ineffective friends working together only because they are friends can cripple an institution. If you have a chance, I recommend working with your friends!