Being In The Friend Zone As A Manager: Strategies To Help You In 10 Sticky Situations

Having a friend at work can make work more bearable, can make the time go faster, and can even enhance your reputation. A Gallup study recommends not just having friends at work, but to have a “best” friend at work, citing multiple workplace health benefits.

However, there are the friends that you make as you work together closely, and potentially friends knew from somewhere else who wound up working at your company. The advice Gallup gives may tempt you to get your friends hired at your company, and there are certainly many companies who want you to refer your friends – the whole birds of a flock theory. Some will even pay you if your friends get hired.

Before you decide to bring your friend into the company, I want you to think about some hypothetical situations you may likely face, especially if you are the hiring manager and you’re considering hiring a friend to be on your team.

Of course, there are times when you’ll make friends at work, but for the sake of this article, we’ll stick with a friend you knew from before. Look for future blogs about the other possible work friend situations.

1. When They Can’t Get Past Who You Were

The friends I’ve known the longest remember when I was young and stupid. They’ve seen me at my lowest. They know and accept me, my mistakes, and my flaws, for the most part. They also have most likely benefited in some way from my strengths, even helping me recognize what makes me special.

Just because they accept me as a person and friend doesn’t mean they’ll accept my authority as a manager.  They may not like the way I manage at all, actually. And, just because they accept my shortcomings doesn’t mean that they won’t exploit them, even subconsciously.

2. When They Wind Up Being Not Who You Thought They Were

There certainly are friends who know how to be professional and understand how to respect your friendship and your leadership. There are probably not as many of your friends who can do this as you think, though. Your past history can be a good indicator, but being a recruiter taught me that with people, you can never be 100% certain.  It really takes two highly emotionally intelligent people to appropriately handle the sticky situations that arise, let alone maintain a friendship through them.

3. When You Have to Manage Performance

As the manager of your friend, you are held responsible for their performance, as you are equally responsible for the rest of your team’s performance. You have to be extra vigilant not to be harsher nor more forgiving of your friend.

Enforcing standardized metrics can ensure that everyone gets held to the same standards.

You have to have a relationship set up from the get-go where you both agree that honesty is kindness. The affection and acceptance that you have for each other can either make it harder or easier, to tell the truth.

This agreement has to go both ways, but you also have to establish that same agreement with all of your team members. Otherwise, if your other team members see your friend as the only one who can talk to you candidly, they will wind up confiding in your friend their concerns, especially those about you. Your friend can then become an unofficial, involuntary delegate to deliver feedback.

Think about how you have both broached difficult conversations in the past. Has it gone both ways? How have you handled it? What were the feelings around it, spoken or unspoken? Do you have a relationship in which honesty is delivered with love and good intentions? Has it helped you both become better?

4. When Your Best Friend Makes A New Best Friend

Of course, you want your friend to make new friends at work…just not a new best friend. However, that’s exactly what can happen. You may have been friends since childhood – a function of the fact that you lived in close proximity to each other, had mutual interests, and other mutual friends.

However, at work, there may be a greater diversity of people with different interests, beliefs, life experiences, and passions to bond over.

Sometimes it happens that what your friend and new friend bond over is you. This is the worst-case scenario of your friend making a new best friend. When you’re the manager, you also often are the scapegoat, and the common enemy. This can really get toxic and degrade morale for the team as a whole. If you get into this situation, I recommend also getting a coach. You will regularly want an objective opinion and someone who can help you check your ego so that you address this from a professional standpoint and without letting your personal feelings dictate if, when, and how you put the kibosh on workplace commiserating against you.

5. When You Are Accused of Nepotism

If your friend winds up being a superstar and getting promoted ahead of other team members, expect that you will have to defend the equality of the opportunity. You will be scrutinized on anything more you could have done to set your friend up for success.

You’ll have to think about if, in the extra time that you spent with your friend, you offered extra trade secrets. You’ll have to determine if their intimate knowledge of who you are giving them an edge in learning from you or earning your favor. You’ll also have to determine if you have felt freer to give them an edge through the information you shared about the other team members.

It’s also possible that they have learned from some cultural tips or tips from earning more recognition, money or perks even before they started.

You have to hand out trade secrets, or “hot” clients, or prominent projects, to all your team members, or at least give them equal opportunity to earn them. Set them up equally for growth opportunities. Be prepared to back up your recommendation or promotion decision based on expectations that you made clear to each team member on what it will take to earn a promotion.  Cite specific examples of performance that warranted the recommendation and performance that fell short of what you previously communicated.

Keep in mind your friend most likely wants people to know that he or she deserved a promotion, or things could get really bad for them, too.  It can make it harder for them to succeed with their own team if there is a belief that it wasn’t by merit, but your friendship that got them there.

6. When You Have Bias For and Bias Against Your Friend

We all do this thing to protect ourselves from looking bad where we assume that we’re unbiased. However, bias operates without our conscious awareness. It really takes quiet self-reflection and heightened self-awareness to recognize it in ourselves.

You know your friend very well, and may be able to identify ahead of time, sooner than other team members, when something is off, and what to do to get them back on quickly.  You may have additional insight into what tends to interfere with your friend’s mood, or how they act when something is bothering them.

Make it a habit to spend time regularly in quiet reflection assessing your response to your friend in comparison to your response to other team members. Ask yourself hard questions, and listen and record the responses in a journal. Sometimes you can’t recognize a pattern until it’s visually there in front of you.

Also, make it a practice to schedule time getting to know such things about your team members. Be proactive in asking them how they are dealing with challenges at work, or even at home.

7. When Your Friend is Dealing with Life

It happens to all of us –  accidents, death, financial difficulties, relationship problems, etc. When these things happen, they don’t happen in a vacuum or a silo. They tend to bleed into other areas of our lives, including our work.

You may even know personally the people in your friends’ life who are impacted by these life events, and so you may be dealing with life by association. This is when you need your friends the most. As your friend’s manager, however, you have to make sure that you are extending the same sympathy, time off, support, understanding, and slack to all of your team members when life happens to them, as well.

And, you’ll have to work harder to build a relationship with other team members in which they feel comfortable confiding in you when life happens.

8. When Your Team Gets Jealous

Your team members may see you being a good friend, and crave that kind of friendship with you, as well.

My old boss was an Ironman, very dedicated to fitness and competitive events. On our team of about 10, there was another fitness buff, and they would go for runs together. It wasn’t long before the murmurings of favoritism started to impact morale, engagement, and productivity. They went ignored for a bit of time. This particular account manager was also enjoying a great amount of success in earning new accounts. It could have been his great attitude, aided by his good physical health and confidence. It could have been how much more he was enjoying his work, having a great relationship with his boss. Even if there was 0 correlation between this buddyhood and his success, there was the perception that there was. Thankfully, my boss was working with the same coach our company made available to us all, and he was mindful and considerate of this concern.

His solution was to give the other team members equal opportunity to socialize with him after work hours and when the team performance warranted, he instituted a happy hour at the office. He brought in a couple of six-packs and we had beers together – a limit of two, for liability’s sake. This was one of several ideas proposed and voted on by the team.

Find the things you like in common with each of your team members, and make time to do them together. Propose that you do some “1:1 team-building” during lunch hours or before/after work.

Be aware of unreasonable requests for time outside of normal working hours, however. Also, stay mindful of how much time during work you spend chit-chatting with your friend and allocate equal time for everyone.

9. When They Don’t Share Your Good Opinion of the Company

For you, the company is a great place to work, which is why you wanted to share the wealth with your friend. However, it is apparently not great for everyone. Perhaps it’s better for managers than it is for non-managers. Perhaps the structure you appreciate is inhibiting your friend’s strengths. Perhaps his or her lifestyle doesn’t work as well with the company hours or flex-time policies.

If your friend decides that the company isn’t the great career move you thought it would be, there can be impacts on your friendship.  It’s even possible they’ll think they were better off where they were before you convinced them to join you. Once a change like that is done, it generally can’t be undone, at least without some apologizing and groveling. I hope if you find yourself in this situation that your friend is forgiving and honest as opposed to secretive and resentful. And, I hope that you have ample notice of their departure so that you can backfill the position and your mistake doesn’t impact operations and reflect poorly on you.

Sometimes revelations from your friend can taint your once-favoring opinion of the company. You may start to see things you were blind to, and you can’t then unsee them.  They may also form opinions about people – people you manage. Be very careful that this doesn’t create biases.

10. When You’re Ready to Move On

Do you owe it to your friend to fill them in on your aspirations to leave? Do you trust that if you do reveal your plan it will stay between the two of you and not get leaked to other team members or your boss prematurely?

If your team finds out your friend new first, will they be salty about it?

Is there a reasonable amount of time after hiring your friend that you are obligated to stay?

Whether your decision is career-motivated, situation-motivated, money-motivated, or lifestyle-motivated, you risk that your friend will feel left behind, unconsidered, and even betrayed.

People may vary in their advice for these situations, but these are hard questions, and there is no one right answer. You may have to ask yourself these questions if you decide to hire your friend.

Hiding anything from someone who knows you well is much harder to do and get away with.

Other situations that can be very hard to navigate include when you know that a layoff is coming but can’t tell anyone, including the person you tell everything. And, when you get fired and your friend gets your job.


As you can see, there’s a lot to consider!

If you are a job seeker wondering why your friends won’t help you or hire you, consider that it might be a blessing in disguise and the best thing your friend can do for your friendship in the long-term.

What sticky situations have you been in with friends at work?

Karen Huller, author of Laser-sharp Career Focus: Pinpoint your Purpose and Passion in 30 Days (, is founder of Epic Careering, a 13-year-old leadership and career development firm specializing in executive branding and conscious culture, as well as JoMo Rising, LLC, a workflow gamification company that turns work into productive play. 

While the bulk of her 20 years of professional experience has been within the recruiting and employment industry, her publications, presentations, and coaching also draw from experience in personal development, performance, broadcasting, marketing, and sales. 

Karen was one of the first LinkedIn trainers and is known widely for her ability to identify and develop new trends in hiring and careering. She is a Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Certified Career Transition Consultant, and Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist with a Bachelor of Art in Communication Studies and Theater from Ursinus College and a minor in Creative Writing. Her blog was recognized as a top 100 career blog worldwide by Feedspot. 

She is an Adjunct Professor in Cabrini University’s Communications Department and previously was an Adjunct Professor of Career Management and Professional Development at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business  She is also an Instructor for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy where some of her students won the 2018 national competition, were named America’s Next Top Young Entrepreneurs, and won the 2019 People’s Choice Award. 

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