“Friends are friends, but business is business.” This is an adage that was given to me by a client many years ago. When I say many years ago, I’m talking around 1988 when I was the CEO of Jungle Jim’s Lawn Service. Don’t snicker – it was a legit operation. I had business cards made. In fact, those business cards came in handy. I used one as a pickup line for my now wife. “So, if you need any yard work done, give me a call. Or just call if you don’t need anything done because, well, my number is on the card…”.
Slick, I know.
But back to the sage advice my former customer gave me. In that instance we were talking about what I would charge to mow her lawn. Despite my prestigious position as CEO of a one-person lawn care empire, I had not yet mastered the fine art of negotiation. Donald Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” was out, but I just never got around to reading it. In fact my business book library was woefully limited to the entire printed works of Calvin and Hobbes. So, with my limited business education, I went into the very serious job of negotiating the price of mowing this lady’s front and back yard. Being an acquaintance of my family, I told her to pay me what she thought was fair, which she shut down quickly, telling me that “friends are friends and business is business,” and that “this is business.” She was right, and all these years later, those words still ring true. The only difference is, instead of paying $10 for a mow and edge job, now it is determining whether to put someone on notice you like for not meeting your expectations of the job.
First off, you know where I am going to start with this: you have to be fair and consistent. I don’t think anyone will argue that. I have never had someone say “fair? That is stupid. Life’s not fair and neither am I!”
Now to be clear – “fair” is relative. Let’s say your policy is to not pay out unused vacation. Assuming that your state and/or local laws are in alignment with that, and you have covered all your other bases (no policy to the contrary, etc.) you are probably in your right to not pay out unused vacation. Now, some might argue that is not fair. Maybe it is, maybe it ain’t. I am not here to judge that. What I am here to say is that you need to maintain consistency as much as possible. (By the way – I am probably not your HR guy – so if you are thinking of implementing this, or any other policy I pull out of my backside, check with your HR professional first please…)
But just because we know we need to be fair and consistent, it is still often not easy. Not to give anyone a big head but the reality is, as a manager/supervisor you can have a disproportionate impact on someone’s livelihood. So unless you are a sociopath or complete jerk, this should at the bare minimum give you pause. It can be tougher as you get to know your team mates and develop personal ties with them. Also, we are all human (even HR people) and the fact is some people are just more likable than others. Let’s be honest: you are less likely to want to go out on a limb for a jerk than you are for someone who is, well, not a poo-poo head.
But you have to resist this! These are your emotions at work, and emotions can lead to bad decisions. Let’s say you do decide to cut some slack for the average Joe, but when your frequent flying pain in the posterior comes along you toe the line. How do you justify that? “Well, Joe just kept his head down and worked. As for this guy – here is an email where he complained about the brand of pens that we buy.” You might get some sympathy, but it is hardly going to counter his claim that it is actually because of his race (or sex, or disability, or fill-in-the-blank). And while many people will probably agree that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, there will be some people who are going to see it as blatant favoritism and are going to wonder if they aren’t going to get the favorable treatment or not if their time comes up.
So how do you get around this? Focus on the policies you have in place and don’t make it personal. Instead of “look, this is bad and so I am writing you up,” say “look, this is a violation of policy and I have to be consistent.” Don’t have a policy? “Look, this goes against what we are trying to accomplish in this department so this can’t happen again and it has to be documented,” or whatever. The main thing is, take yourself out of the mix. They violated the policy, and there are consequences. They went against the standards and there are consequences. It also helps to be able to honestly say “we have to be consistent with how we handle these situations.” No matter what the consequence, I have yet to have someone tell me that they are above this and need to be treated differently. Of course if you can’t honestly say this, or they can point to how you did make an exception for someone that they see as your friend – your argument is going to be hard to make.