Redefine friendships at work when one of you is promoted

November 03, 1993|By Dottie Enrico | Dottie Enrico,Newsday

Lisa and Maria were used to spending hours at the after-work hangout sharing gossip, career dreams and griping about their love lives. But this evening Lisa looked extremely troubled.

"Maria," she said, as she stared into her margarita, nervously picking at the salt along the rim of the glass. "I've been promoted. Starting next week, you'll be reporting to me."

There was a moment of pregnant silence before Maria laughed nervously.

"You've got to be kidding," she said. The two had toughed out three years in entry-level publishing jobs, and Lisa's entrance into management signaled a significant change in their friendship.

Like many colleagues who develop personal relationships in the office, these women were about to experience a very sticky workplace dilemma: working for an associate who used to be a colleague.

"It isn't possible for two people involved in that kind of managerial shift to maintain the same kind of interaction in the office," says Anne Reilly, assistant professor of management in the Loyola University School of Business.

Maria remembers weeks of tension and paranoia right after Lisa was promoted. She would cringe every time Lisa was seen lunching with a top executive Maria had once called "the jerk" behind his back.

"At first I was hurt because she didn't go out of her way to make me feel more comfortable," says Maria. "But then Lisa told me she was having a hard time feeling comfortable herself and wondered why I hadn't been supportive."

She didn't acknowledge it at first, but Maria was expecting personal attention from Lisa because of their friendship. Lisa, meanwhile, thought it would be unprofessional to give Maria special treatment. But she erred by avoiding her altogether.

"Very often you see people get promoted and they will go out of their way to balance out relationships by being too hard or too easy on someone because they are trying not to play favorites," says Jeffrey Goldstein, assistant professor in the business school at Adelphi University.

Eventually, the two women sat down over lunch on a Saturday afternoon and had a three-hour conversation about how to maintain their friendship. They agreed that Maria would be treated with warmth around the office, but that she wouldn't be given special favors. They decided not to share as much office gossip and to always maintain confidentiality.

Most experts agree that fair and equal treatment is essential to new managers trying to earn the trust of their employees. Exaggerating behavior to quash perceptions of favoritism or vindictiveness can only hurt a boss' reputation.

For example, Jim and his partner Tom had been a writer/art director team at a New York City ad agency for some 10 years when Jim was promoted into a managerial spot supervising Tom. Jim was a favorite among management, and he soon learned that Tom was not. One of the partners who particularly disliked Tom told Jim to put the "heat on" Tom. Otherwise, he said, co-workers in Jim's group might think he was giving his old partner special treatment.

"I listened to this guy because I didn't want it to look like I was playing favorites," said Jim. "After a few months, Tom and I were barely speaking, and eventually he left the agency because he said he couldn't work for me."

Months later, Jim was fired. The partner who had encouraged him to lean on Tom cited Jim's "inability to manage others effectively" as the basis of the firing. "In the end," says Jim. "I think that using me to get the job done was one of the main reasons I got promoted."

Jim speaks wistfully about Tom. Although the two maintain a cordial relationship, both agree that their friendship will never be the same.

Not every manager faces the Machiavellian nightmare Jim did.

Experts say there are a few simple steps one can take to be an effective manager and maintain close ties with friends at work. Defining boundaries is the first, and most important, step in creating a productive working relationship between two former colleagues.

When renegotiating the terms of the friendship, it's important that both parties have equal say in defining behavior and that both stick to the ground rules. The rules, however, can vary from company to company depending on how loose or conservative the workplace is.

"When it comes to friendship, most bosses can continue to manage people they used to be close to," says Ms. Reilly. "I'd say the only situation where someone might have to request a transfer is if the two people were involved in a romantic way."

"It all depends on whether the promotion is taking place in top management or if it's one where a front-line worker is being promoted to a supervisory position for the first time," says Mr. Goldstein. "I think it's pretty clear the relationship will have to change. But renegotiating the terms can be very difficult."

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