Hiring friends, family may damage other relationships

Dear Joan:
I have a challenging situation that I hope you can help me with. I have been working for a small marketing firm for about five years. I really enjoy my job and liked the boss I worked for. The problem is that my boss hired his best friend to be our manager nine months ago. Now his friend (let’s call him John) is positioned between my former boss and me.

I had a great working relationship with my manager (let’s call him Paul) and now I rarely see him. John and Paul are constantly in meetings or out to lunch. I’m used to working independently but sometimes I need direction or to bounce around some new ideas. I can no longer go to Paul because the office protocol dictates that I have to go through John with any questions or issues.

The bottom line is that John is incompetent and no one likes him. We don’t feel that we can go to Paul and tell him because they are friends and because it would be like telling Paul that he made a terrible hiring decision. Paul is somewhat aware of this situation because he has said things to me such as, "I get frustrated by John, too" or "Sometimes it takes me forever to figure out what John is talking about," but otherwise he thinks this guy is great.

John has never managed people and he doesn’t have good communication skills. He’s worked in the trenches with our manager in a former job and he was probably good at what he did, but he is in over his head here. When some of our group questioned a decision he made, he made a condescending remark to the person in front of everyone. That is just a sample of the many things that have turned us all off.

People are miserable. Four people have quit but no one has admitted the real reason for their departure. They don’t want to burn any bridges for a reference. Any advice?

When Paul opened the door to his friend, he closed it for the rest of you. This is a clear and classic example of why hiring friends (and family) is usually a bad idea. Your options are few and the potential outcomes are risky.

Let’s examine a few ideas, but keep in mind that when it comes to personal relationships, people often behave in less predictable ways because their decisions are filtered through an emotional screen.

One plan is to work through John himself. If he is aware that he is struggling, he may be open to some gentle advice from you. You will need to use a subtle touch here or perhaps a little humor will help. Try waiting for a moment when he stumbles or runs into trouble with the group. Then take that opportunity to stop by to offer a little friendly help. "Managing this crew can be like herding cats. One of the things Paul did that seemed to help was to meet with each of us one-on-one to discuss our projects…"

If these attempts are rebuffed, you will need to examine whether your relationship with Paul is strong enough to withstand a heart-to-heart discussion about John. You will have to choose your words carefully so I’d advise preparing your thoughts in advance, to avoid saying something you’d regret later. For instance, "There is a serious level of concern in our department about John’s management skills," is better than, "Everybody hates John."

Once you tell Paul about John, Paul is likely to ask you what you have done to work it out with John. In addition, Paul is now going to be faced with a decision: does he confront his friend John and, if so, will he tell John what you said about him? As you are aware, things could get ugly. If Paul has excellent leadership skills, he may be savvy enough to listen to what you have to say and then start observing John more closely, so he can get some first-hand examples to use. Another thing a good manager would do is to coach you on ways you could communicate your concerns to John. But there is also a risk that Paul might side with his friend against you.

Another option is to avoid confronting the situation head-on and just continue to do your good work. The trick will be to make sure that you keep Paul in the loop. When possible, stop by his office to say hello and chat about what you’re working on. Make sure you copy him on key memos and e-mails. Because you had a good relationship in the past, try to leverage it. Over time, Paul may realize his mistake, or John may improve. In either case, try to keep in touch with Paul in an informal way and make sure he sees your good work.

One of the benefits of a quality human resources person, if your firm is large enough to have one, is that he or she could intervene on the team’s behalf (but the results would still depend on Paul’s ability to deal objectively with the situation).

It seems a terrible shame that a manager like John can continue to have such a negative impact, but the political consequences of stepping between friends can be significant. If the situation becomes intolerable, it’s time to explore other options. Then it will be your decision whether or not you wish to tell Paul why you are leaving. If Paul is a good leader, he will have taken steps long before that will become necessary.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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