Friendship Impedes Decision-making

A client asks, "After a long period of poor sales performance, repeated discussions, and multiple attempts at helping him, I have decided to terminate the employment of one of my salespeople. The problem is that we are close personal friends, our wives are close friends, we socialize as couples, and our children know each other. My uncertainty about how to handle the friendship going forward is keeping me from following through on what I know to be the right decision for this salesperson and the company."

First, you seem to have done quite a lot for this individual to try and help him succeed on the job. For that you are to be commended. You also seem to realize the deleterious effect a poorly performing salesperson kept on the payroll will have on the rest of your sales staff. If you do not act, you relationship will be seen by the rest of the sales team as more important than the success of your business. Terminating your friend and colleague will be very difficult. Here are some suggestions for making this awkward situation a little more bearable.

Provide transitional support

Because this person is very important to you, provide the things that will genuinely help him through this painful transition period in his life. This could include: a generous severance package, health care coverage, commissions on unclosed business for a designated period, career counseling, and outplacement services.

Open your rolodex

If you know that this person is not appropriate for a sales position, don't risk your reputation or jeopardize his future by helping him to find another sales job. His stay at the next company will be brief and he will be out job hunting again. But do tell him that once he has some potential career paths in mind, perhaps after he has worked with a career counselor, that you will be happy to introduce him to anyone you know that can help him.

Take a break and then reach out

No matter how the person reacts to their termination, let some time pass before you initiate contact, but assure him that he should feel comfortable contacting you at any time. Once he's settled in to outplacement or you have heard that he is going on some interviews, give him a call. Be supportive and upbeat when you speak to him but don’t make social plans. Reiterate your offer to make introductions.

You might be surprised

Though some people struggle for quite some time to find themselves after a termination, many of my clients are shocked to find that their long-time employee immediately started a business they had been interested in for years or enthusiastically pursued a totally unrelated career path. They often wonder why this person didn't do it years before and realize that fear, inertia, or security kept him in a position that he was ill suited for.

Be prepared to say goodbye

Many people who form close friendships with colleagues are surprised to find that the relationships fade when they no longer work together. This happens even when they leave a job amicably under positive circumstances. Your friend may have formed a friendship with you to protect his job or the embarrassment of being let go may make it impossible for him to feel truly relaxed around you again. There is no way to predict what will happen.

Some of my clients find that once they no longer see the person daily, they have no interest in maintaining the friendship. Others find that they genuinely miss this individual and would like to resume the friendship. I advise them to have lunch with their former colleague and see if they really enjoy the other person’s company. If they do, they can start rebuilding the friendship. If it's strained, they can more easily accept that it is time to move on.