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Small Business Q & A: The Thick Line Between Buddy and Boss

Q: One of my key ... is giving me trouble. He has started showing up late for work and has ... a bad attitude in general. The rest of my ... are ... since they are having to

Q: One of my key employees is giving me trouble. He has started
showing up late for work and has developed a bad attitude in general.
The rest of my employees are complaining since they are having to
take up his slack. I've tried talking to him, but he doesn't seem
to listen. To make matters worse, he has become one of my best
friends since I hired him five years ago, so firing him is out of
the question. What can I do?
-- Allen B.

A: One reason I am so qualified to dispense sage business advice
every week, Allen, is that I have made just about every business
blunder you can imagine. I am like the Evel Knievel of the small
business world, if Evel Knievel wrote a weekly column on motorcycle

One of the more unpleasant things I've had to do is fire a good
friend who was not doing the job I hired him to do. He needed a
job, I needed an employee, so I thought I would give him a shot.
It turned out to be a match made in business hell. He took advantage
of our friendship by showing up late for work, spending time goofing
off instead of working, and making a joke out of my complaints about
his behavior. Because of our friendship I defended his actions to
my other employees, but after a few weeks I knew I had to show him
the door. We're still friends, but certainly not like we were before.

The blunder I made was hiring a friend in the first place. I let
emotion, i.e. the desire to help my friend gain employment, get in
the way of my business sense. That's what you are doing now, Allen,
and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are going to have
to deal with this situation soon or your entire operation may be
affected by the actions of this one person.

The blunder you have made is that you have befriended an employee,
which is something you should never do. I'm not saying you can't
be friendly with your employees, but you have attached a considerable
amount of emotional baggage to the employer/employee relationship and
the result is the situation you are faced with today.

Friends expect preferential treatment simply because they are your
friends. The workplace, however, must be a level playing field for
all your employees, friends or not. While employees deserve your
respect (if it is earned), giving one employee preferential treatment
over another is never a good idea. This is a problem experienced by
many business owners and managers who allow themselves to become too
close to their employees.

I understand that he has become your friend over the years and you'd
rather eat rocks than fire him, but you have to consider how his
behavior is impacting your business over all. What effect is he
having on employee morale, on work schedules, on customer relations,
on time spent fixing his mistakes, and most importantly, the bottom line?

You have two options: get him back on track or get him off the payroll,
period. That may sound cold and politically incorrect, but those are
your only choices. Either way, you must be his employer first and friend
second. He may have personal reasons for his performance, but as his
employer you are legally limited as to how much prying you can do into
his home life. As his friend, however, I expect that you already have
a good idea what the problem is. If you can help him return to being
a productive member of the team, then do so. If not, wish him well,
let him go, and move on.

Here are a few suggestions to help you establish and enforce the
boundaries of the employer/employee relationship.

Define the relationship.
Keep your seat, Dr. Phil, this won't take long. The employer/employee
relationship should be well-defined from the outset and the parameters
understood by all parties. Some call it "defining the pecking order"
or "establishing the food chain." Whatever colorful term you use it
all boils down to this: You can be their boss or you can be their buddy.
You can not be both.

Don't hire friends or relatives.
This rule is certainly bendable if you are the owner of the business and
you hire your children to work for you. Chances are your offspring already
accept you as the ultimate authority figure and managing them in a business
environment is second nature. However, even this situation could have a
negative impact on your business as non-related employees often expect the
boss' son, daughter, or best buddy to work less, make more money, and be
treated better than everyone else. Whether that's true or not, nepotism
and cronyism can create an underlying tension among the ranks.

Establish and adhere to company policies.
It's a good idea to have published policies concerning every aspect of your
business, including employee behavior and performance expectations. By it's
very nature the employer/employee relationship is prone to favoritism.
Managers can't help but favor those employees who work harder, longer, and
faster, but when it comes to adhering to company policies, there should be
no preferential treatment of favored employees. Every employee should
receive a copy of your published company policies and sign a form stating
that they have read, understand, and agree with the same.

The Bottom Line: treat everyone the same.
It does not matter if the employee is a vice president or a janitor;
everyone in your company should be treated the same when it comes to
adhering to published company policies and performance expectations.

While it is true that a vice president may be of more value to the company
than a janitor, it is also true that a vice president who is running amok
can do far more damage to your company than a janitor who lets a toilet
back up every once in awhile (there's an analogy there that I will let you
figure out on your own).

It's not personal, it's just business.
This is what the movie bad guys say to one another right before the
shooting starts. "Hey, Paulie, it's not personal. It's just business."
BLAM! BLAM! This is the dating equivalent of saying, "It's not you,
it's me." These kinds of statements are not going to make anyone feel
better when they are getting dumped or fired. Just ask any former
employee or old girlfriend you've used this line on.

If you have to fire an employee - even a friend - do it by the book in a
professional manner.

It won't be easy, but you have to remove the emotion and do what's best
for your business.

Here's to your success.

Tim Knox
For information on starting your own online or eBay businessFree Web Content,

Article Tags: Small Business, Employer/employee Relationship, Preferential Treatment, Good Idea, Company Policies, Vice President

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Tim Knox as the president and CEO of two successful technology
companies: B2Secure Inc., a Web-based hiring management software
company; and Digital Graphiti Inc., a software development company.
Tim is also the founder of, an ebusiness
dedicated to the success of online entrepreneurs.

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