Advice, Please: I Want to Hire My Friend. Is That Too Risky?

Last week, a client asked me this question: “Is it okay to hire my friend/cousin/other connected person in my ecosystem?”

I replied that it could be terrible–particularly if and when the job comes to an end. Or it could be great. I do a lot of work with family-operated and other privately held businesses, and I’ve seen tremendous upside from commitment, love, dedication, and loyalty

In general, though, I recommend against hiring friends and family for many obvious reasons: They may expect to act like your familiar rather than your subordinate; they might assume they’ll get to enjoy all the perks and privileges that you have (or that they believe you have); they may expect a pass when they don’t perform well; they could lord their connection to you over other employees; if they create a problem, you might make less than optimal decisions as a way to avoid dealing with them; they may share personal information about you in public or call you nicknames or talk about subjects that aren’t appropriate at work; and, worst of all, you could lose a valuable friendship or social connection or say goodbye to peaceful family dinners if you have to discipline them or let them go.

Some companies have anti-nepotism policies to prevent all those difficulties. On the other hand, there are companies that offer referral rewards for every neighbor and in-law. If you trust people and you believe in them, it can occasionally be totally worth it to hire people you know. Close connections may go all out to deliver what you need; meanwhile, because of your fondness for them, you may try harder to ensure they have a good experience, learn the skills they need, get the feedback they deserve, and generally invest more in helping them be successful.

How to Approach Hiring Someone You Know

The best thing to do when deciding whether to hire someone close to you is to stay focused on the hiring process, meanwhile preparing yourself emotionally. Here are some early questions to ask yourself about your potential hire—and about yourself (and keep in mind that if these are not part of your standard screening process, you may want to add them):

  • What do I/what does the organization need from this role?
  • What are the necessary skills for this job, and does this person have them? If not, am I willing to help them get those skills?
  • Are there any downsides to their behavior or employment history that are likely to be detrimental to the organization or their colleagues? 
  • Do they have special talents that could help move me and the organization ahead? 
  • Do I truly trust them, or do I trust them no more than I would a stranger with their skills and experience?
  • Is their thinking both critical and creative? Do they generally have good ideas, and can they express them clearly? 
  • Do they avoid drama and gossip? [Note: This question is really important, and your experience of this person as part of your social life may give you a more accurate understanding of their likely behavior. Don’t expect that they’ll do better on the job than in real life “just because work is more structured.”]
  • Can I determine if they’re willing to work hard, long, and smart? 
  • Will I be able to tell them if they’re messing stuff up or not doing things the way I really want them done? Or will I try to overlook problems for the sake of our relationship and because I don’t want to hurt or upset them? When hard times arise, will I just hope things will get better instead of taking action? [Note: Check on whether you’re doing that with your current non-connected employees too!]
  • If it becomes necessary, am I emotionally prepared to cut them off from their source of income and the other benefits of work-life for the good of the organization or for my own well-being?

Closely Question Your Close Connection

Assuming that all of your answers to these questions are affirmative, one way to keep things fair is to put your connection through the same testing or reference-checking process you would use with someone else—and to use the resulting data to inform your decision. 

Be sure to ask this person the same kind of tough or complicated questions to assess their capabilities including questioning them about past employment experiences. Otherwise, when you’re two weeks in, you might get a sinking feeling and think, “Oh no, they can’t really do the job,” or “Wait, I thought they had experience with that?” And you’ll feel stuck.

Before making any realistic plan for hiring a close connection, discuss how the two of you will manage to stay professional and keep the social stuff separate. Emphasize that your first priority will be the work and the organization, and that your personal relationship with them will come second at best. And explain that you’ll be candid with them—all the time—about the quality of their performance and contributions, that you’ll provide direct feedback, and that you’ll expect them to be candid and forthcoming with you as well.

Consider having a trial or probationary period to protect both of you, so they’re not taking the job based on liking you the way you seem to be on weekends. Of course others in the organization will know—or figure out—your relationship, and they’ll be watching to see if you’re being fair and even-handed and not giving your connection special treatment or if you’re letting problems with this person go unchecked.

Hiring a close connection can be tough on everyone involved—you, the other person, and the organization—especially if you don’t manage this relationship gracefully and fairly. On the other hand, strangers screw up too. Just make sure to prepare yourself as deeply as you would for a candidate you don’t know.

Onward and upward—
LK

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