Should you hire a friend or relative?

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What do you do if a close friend or relative applies for a position in your company and you know they’ve got the skills for the job? It may be a risky decision but one industry expert says there are ways to make it work.

Kathy Kolbe founded HR consultancy and publishing company Kolbe Corp over 30 years ago and currently works alongside her husband and two of her children – as well as many other employees – to advise businesses of all sizes about their people practices.

Unsurprisingly, she’s become an expert at successfully separating personal life from professional and recently co-penned ‘Business is Business: Reality Checks for Family-Owned Companies’ with fellow advisor Amy Bruske.

“We have several rules that we give in the book that are tips for both what you should do and what you shouldn’t do when working with family or close friends and certainly one of the things with family is not to use personal names from home,” says Kolbe.

“So when you’re working with your spouse, you don’t call them honey at work or if you’re working with your father, you don’t call him dad at work – if you can avoid any of those personal names that helps a lot.”

Kolbe says if personal names or terms of endearment slip into the workforce, it can very quickly undermine an employee or leader and make them the subject of ridicule.

“It’s fine to ask someone for help but if you call them dad it looks childish,” she explains. “The same is true in personal relationships when spouses or people who are dating use terms of affection – it’s very difficult for others to then take them seriously.”

Another common problem, according to Kolbe, is the temptation to talk about business problems when you go home or spend time with friends outside of the workplace.

“You ought not to talk about business problems at home or in a social evening out,” says Kolbe. “We sometimes suggest it’s fine to talk about interesting things that happen but not solve problems and that’s the golden rule – don’t try to solve business problems at home.

“If you do that, then you’re just bringing business stress home or you’re interfering with your close friendships and instead of talking about things that interest your friends, you might get into an argument about business.”

Similarly, Kolbe says problems can arise when friends or family bring personal problems into the workplace.

“Absolutely it works the other way and one of the things you never want to do, if you’re angry, annoyed or upset – maybe you’ve had an argument at home – you cannot let that show in the office.

“There’s also the issue of forming cliques – family members should not sit next to each other or not even particularly near each other if at all possible,” suggests Kolbe.

“They shouldn’t have lunch together all the time, it’s fine to do it once in a while, but if you always go to lunch together than you’re excluding other people from joining you or people may think you’re going to talk about others or you’re going to solve a problem away from the group so it’s not a wise thing to do that very often – occasionally, of course, but not often.”

Kolbe says it’s also critical that, if leaders are thinking about taking on a close friend or relative, that they maintain professional fairness at all times.

“You don’t give them any special favours and you don’t give them opportunities that you wouldn’t give someone else who has been working with you,” she stresses. “That favouritism will come back to bite you, it’ll hurt your relationship with other employees and it’ll put your professionalism at risk.”

Despite the many caveats, Kolbe herself works well alongside her family members and says others can too – but she’s not so quick to say the same about friends.

“The number one reason for hiring a family member – and I would not say this about close friends – with family members, you have a history together and you often have shared values so you can trust a family member to have your back, you can trust a family member to share beliefs with you,” she says.

“Sometimes people think their close friends are like family members in that respect, that’s when you need to be very careful because if you really truly know other people and you know their values fine but if they’re social friends, you don’t always know those things about them.

“It’s not a good idea in most cases to hire friends,” she warns. “If the friend has been a social friend that you’ve never worked with and you really don’t know how they work, how hard they work, how much effort they put in, it can be terribly difficult to fire a friend but if they don’t fit your work culture and you don’t normally know that about friends, you may know their social culture but you don’t know their work culture.”

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