How to "Unfriend" a Coworker

by Staff - Original publish date: July 29, 2013

Dear Heather,

Any suggestions for “unfriending” a co-worker? Or at least taking it down a notch? When I first started my job, “Melanie” and I became fast friends. We were both going through some similar challenges and bonded quickly over daily lunches and the occasional happy hour. But over the past six months, I’ve become her boss and she has made some bad relationship decisions that are beginning to impact her work. She comes into my office and bursts into tears, and I feel like a horrible friend for saying this, but I can’t deal with it! At least not at the office. Any ideas??? I like her. A lot. But she’s over her head with the wrong guy and it is seriously affecting her judgment!


Dear Sandy,

Yep. That’s a tough one: Will you be a consistent boss or an unconditional friend? Can you be both?

Probably not. One relationship will have to take the lead here, and it will probably need to be the one that supplies you with electricity and Greek yogurt. While it’s certainly possible to maintain a friendship with Melanie, it probably won’t resemble the original model wherein you dished dirt and dreams and dating dilemmas on your lunch hour. A work-based friendship will require some adjustments when hit with hierarchical changes. It isn’t clear if you tried to address this when you leapfrogged to the boss seat, but the fact that Melanie is bursting into tears in your office tells me that your current boundaries are at least ineffective.

Let’s consider two possible courses of action. In the first, Sandy the Boss would schedule a meeting with Melanie in the office and explain how her personal problems are negatively impacting her job performance and, potentially, her future opportunities. You would express your professional confidence and support but draw a firm and unmistakable line between the office and those tearful outbursts.

Or...In the second scenario, you would meet with Melanie outside of work in your capacity as "friend." Sandy the Friend would express concern over some of Melanie’s recent decisions and help her look at options that might stabilize her personal life. She would encourage her to take actions that demonstrate self-respect. She would affirm Melanie’s capabilities both personally and professionally, and then segue to the impact her current personal dilemmas are having on her job performance. Sandy the Boss would then speak up, delineating the need to segregate personal problems from workplace interactions: “Melanie, I want to be supportive of you both personally and professionally, but I simply can’t discuss “Jim/John/Jackass” during our workday. What I can do is assist you towards your career goals...”

Integrity demands that the two “Sandys” become one and the same. This is accomplished in the first situation with a somewhat blunt dismissal of the friendship. Ideally, the second scenario would allow you to blend them into one consistent boss who is also a cordial friend. Your status as Melanie’s superior dictates a diminishment to the level of intimacy you once shared, but if you navigate this well, your friendship can, hopefully, endure -- albeit in a new form.

And don’t burn bridges. Ever. There are no guarantees that your employee Melanie will not one day be your boss. It happens. Extending professional kindness whenever possible is always the best office policy.


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