Disciplining Employees who are Friends

One morning, you wake up with the butterflies in your stomach. You know you have something unpleasant to attend to at work and boy you are dreading it. On the way to work, you make a brief stop at Starbucks to grab yourself a Latte, hoping it will supply the mental energy you need. Upon arriving, you meet with that employee, Mark, who has a habit of showing up late – for the fifth time in two weeks.

If he were an ordinary employee, you would have no problem resorting to confrontation. But he is a friend.

You worked side-by-side before being promoted to manager. Each time you approached Mark about his tardiness, he redirects to your long-time friendship. You value his friendship, but his conduct is violating the company standard. As a manager, you cannot ignore his behavior. This scenario presents a significant problem.

What practices can those in Human Resources (HR) or as a manager take when “disciplining employees” who are friends?

First, establish your mindset. See the following tips to help cultivate a strong mental attitude as a leader.  


Value Your Company’s Vision

Influencing people to buy in to your company’s vision requires you to represent that vision. Albert Schweitzer once said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” Showing lenience on a friend undermines your expectations of others.

When talking to Mark, keep the following in mind:

  1. Maintain a consistent, serious tone. Otherwise, you confuse the message you are trying to convey. To encourage change, he needs to feel the full weight of the situation.
  1. Respond appropriately to pushback. Be aware that he may say something like, “Oh wow, you really do sound like a manager now. C’mon on it’s me, your pal.” This response communicates a lack of respect. Continuing to act as a friend will worsen the situation.

Becoming a leader sometimes compels you to make a gut-wrenching move – one that separates leaders from followers. Comport yourself as a leader by being mentally prepared to resort to the following consequence.   

Consider Burning a Bridge

Mark’s lack of quality is setting a new standard. If other employees notice you not correcting it, his misconduct could motivate others to lapse in decorum and lower work performance. Research reveals that low work performance weakens customer incentives, which will also lead to a decrease in sales. A vicious cycle of negative cause and effect is set in motion if HR fails to address the lapses quickly.

If your friend is affecting your team at work then you may need to burn that bridge. Especially if you value your company’s mission and purpose more than your friends behavior. Being mentally prepared to burn a bridge means you are okay with firing him if he fails to change his conduct.

To provide a fair chance of redemption for Mark, create an action plan. Read further to learn how that plan is implemented.


Build a Progressive Discipline Plan

The next step utilizes progressive discipline. Such process helps employees stay consistent with company procedures.

Progressive discipline is not a guaranteed fix, but when executed effectively, it provides the leverage a difficult employee needs to correct behavior. Through this process, it is essential to stay consistent with your tone and message. Remember, this situation is serious and is not the time to chat among friends. Below are the following steps to implement.

  1. Verbal counseling First you should call Mark to your office. Privately, bring the problem to his attention and explain how he is failing to follow company policies. Alert Mark that should his actions continue, severe consequences will follow. Take detailed notes on the conversation so there is documented evidence.
  1. Written warningsIf there are no signs of progress since the verbal counseling, the next step entails a written warning (see example). Give Mark a detailed written notice describing the behavior and consequences caused by failing to follow policies. You might consider providing a sheet with the company’s expectations to review. Mark will sign the form showing that he is compliant with the process.
  1. Performance Improvement Plan If mistakes continue after the written warning, give him a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). This formal written form serves as a last ditch effort to help the employee get back on track. It is more explicit than a written warning. On this form, write down which areas Mark needs to improve and how he can show progress. Schedule the date for the next conference. The documentation in this step provides evidence that you took the necessary steps to assist the employee in making a change.    
  1. Termination of employmentBefore you terminate, give the employee a chance to make his case. Inquire accordingly when hearing his explanation. Afterwards, provide a written notice of termination if his story is unconvincing. Moreover, ask another person – such as an assistant manager – to sit in on your meeting so someone else is witnessing the conversation.


Be Aware of Inconveniences

You are probably thinking, while disciplining a bad employee involves a great deal of effort, firing one requires even more!

Terminating an employment leads to vacancies, which the employer then has to fill. Time is exhausted attempting to close that vacancy – time that could be invested elsewhere. In other words, make sure you are aware of the inconveniences following a termination of employment before proceeding.

But the process of progressive discipline is worth it and ought to be implemented, because if you bear with the time spent in this process you will wind up with a win-win situation. Why? Because in the process you may find that the employee makes a turnaround and turns out to be a solid worker for you in the future. Or, if he fails to improve, you can remove a bad apple from your work environment! Either way, your company can move on to fulfilling its vision.

You now have four important steps to apply when “disciplining employees” who are friends:

  1. Remember to value your company’s vision by setting an example for all employees.
  2. Consider burning a bridge if your friendship is undermining your company’s goals.
  3. Put him through a PIP so there is documentation, consistency with the process, and a fair chance for redemption.
  4. Be aware of the inconveniences but know that bearing with the process could be the best decision you ever made for your company.   


Identify your potential bad apples before they become a problem with

Novareté’s FREE Culture Assessment.