How do I tell my friend that I'm about to become his boss?
July 25, 2017 12:06 AM   Subscribe

I just accepted a job at my former employer after a year's hiatus from work. It's a super great opportunity and I'm super stoked, except that I'm going to be supervising a pretty good friend. How do I tell him this?

About a year ago, I quit my job after I had a major health crisis and then had an unrelated death in my immediate family. My employer was supportive through those challenges, but I needed some time away from working to heal body and mind. 

Recently I decided I was ready to get back into the workforce. I ramped up my networking, and met one of the executives from my old employer for lunch. She asked if I was interested in coming back and outlined a need they had that I could fit. Within the next two weeks I met with the hiring executive and had an offer in hand. It is similar to the role I had before, but with more money, authority, and a team to lead. Sounds awesome, right? 

My problem is that a good friend, "Jake," is the team's current technical lead (but not manager). Jake's wife is lifelong friends with my best friend, I've been to his house for game nights, we have lunch occasionally, and have worked together at two different companies. We're not besties, but he's in my social circle. When I mentioned to my best friend that I was talking to my old employer about a role that would make me Jake's boss, she was negative about it, and implied that I wasn't qualified (Jake has more technical knowledge and experience than me, but the hiring executive is looking for industry knowledge, client engagement, and project management, which I'm stronger in). I haven't brought it up with her again. 

Complicating things is that the executives at my employer are not happy with Jake's performance as lead, and that's a part of why they have created the manager role I'm moving into. I'm a little baffled by this, because he's genuinely knowledgeable, hardworking, and easy to get along with. I think it is probably a combination of burnout and miscommunication, but I'll know more once I get in the role. 

What I'm struggling with is how/whether/when to talk to Jake about this. I need to hash out with my future manager how we'll tell the team that I'll be leading them. Because of our existing relationship, it would be very weird to not give Jake a head's up before/separate from whatever general meeting is held. If I were moving into a role that wasn't his supervisor, I would have already sent a "GUESS WHAT I'M COMING BACK!!" text to him. 

I am not sure how he will feel about it, and I wouldn’t be surprised or hold it against him if his initial reaction is not entirely positive. I’d like to grab lunch and roll it out to him, but there’s also value in giving him time to have a private reaction and think about his response. I know our relationship will change, but treating him like just another coworker with this news feels like it will get things off to a bad start.

What's the best way to share this information and get off on the right foot?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe try to set up a short lunch (you have to go to a thing afterwards) or a coffee meeting. Give him the heads up, let him ask questions and then exit so he can think it over (and leave an opening for him to come back to you if he thinks of something else).
Personally I think the way to make it a bit less awkward is to play up your separate areas of strength - ie you on the industry/management side giving him more time to play to his technical strengths, which you will need to lean on. You can also play up the "shielding from corporate bullshit" role of a manager, which a lot of technical people really appreciate if it's done well.
posted by crocomancer at 2:34 AM on July 25, 2017 [10 favorites]

You're not telling him that he's got 2 weeks to live - buy him lunch, acknowledge that it's weird. Then he can choose to either keep the friendship and the job, or jeopardize both.

FWIW, supervising someone that you're friends with in a really isn't bad unless they suck.
posted by ftm at 4:53 AM on July 25, 2017 [9 favorites]

This is a bad situation. You've been brought in to manage him because they are unhappy with his performance. That seems like it'll be hard to do without you having to say, as his line manager, at a performance review, that 'some changes need to be made, if we are gonna move forwards on this together' etc etc.

Interim conversations don't really matter. That's the one you seem to have signed up for.
posted by durandal at 5:12 AM on July 25, 2017 [15 favorites]

I agree with crocomancer about playing up your complementary strengths. If they're unhappy with Jake's performance, but you think he's smart and easy to get along with, you could be the person who saves his job in the long term. Any manager who's *not* friendly with Jake would be more likely to perpetuate the miscommunication problem, right?

I think there are also ways to treat the conversation as a backchannel, pre-employment opportunity for him to describe the current state of office politics. You know what's going on from the executive POV, but apparently they made this offer without running you past all the team leads: what is the picture on the ground? It would be reasonable to ask any future coworker from your social circle for their assessment. This would also reassure Jake that you're a collaborative manager who sees him as an equal with a valuable perspective, and that you're not coming in to lord it over the more-technical guy with communication problems.
posted by xueexueg at 5:55 AM on July 25, 2017 [14 favorites]

> FWIW, supervising someone that you're friends with in a really isn't bad unless they suck.

I disagree, and I think the questioner should be resigned to losing the friendship; I've been in this situation and it's very, very hard to keep both work and friendship on track. (The one time I had a boss who stayed a friend, he didn't give a shit about the company and allowed us outrageous liberties, which was great but probably not applicable here.)

By all means let him know in advance, and hope that he adjusts well, but don't expect the friendship to continue on the same basis; you'll be lucky if it doesn't turn into open hostility.
posted by languagehat at 7:43 AM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

The most inspiring manager I ever worked kept this perspective: his job was to help, to listen to, and to serve the people he was "managing". He mentioned this regularly, to me: an intern. It wasn't just words he used when convenient, it was how he approached the job.

He was working with R&D software programmers, and his technical knowledge was certainly less than theirs. I think this attitude of his was his secret to success.

If you tell your friend that you are there to support and help him, and if you actually let him lead a bit, if you are in fact just the protective connection between him and the rest of the company, he will probably not trust this at first. If you can prove it to him, though, through action, then you could not only do a lot of good for him, you could be a real help to a lot of people.

Your relationship to him will definitely change. That's OK. Sometimes it will feel like he's the boss of you, sometimes you will have to be the boss of him. You have different relationships with every person, and they will change over time.
posted by amtho at 7:59 AM on July 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm stuck on the fact that this company is hiring a new manager for a team, and apparently chose not to involve anyone in that team in the hiring process. I think that half of your awkwardness with that whole team will be caused by the company making you do their dirty work. Here's how I think it should go down when hiring a new manager:

1. Next-level up manager tells the team that they have opened a headcount for manager of that team and will be hiring externally.
2. Ideally, they involve at least some of the team members (e.g. technical lead) in the interview process.
3. The team is told the outcome of each candidate's interview -- thus Jake knows they're making you an offer before you do.
4. You show up, and the only awkwardness is just "new manager integrating with a team, trying to identify what works and what needs changing." You don't layer on the additional awkwardness of "Surprise! Your company secretly hired me to manage you chimps!"

So... could you ask this company to communicate the situation before you talk to anyone on the team?
posted by hammurderer at 9:00 AM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Talk to Jake after it's made official through the proper channels, as dictated by your own chain of command.

Bonus recommendation: keep the friendship going on a professional basis only until you are no longer in Jake's management chain. I am in this situation with a friend of mine, and we've kept things professional and things are OK. I'm sure we can start our friendship back up if we desire when one of us changes gigs.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 9:08 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would have a talk with him in which the theme would be setting the tone that you value his technical expertise and his experience at the company in question. I have a feeling that he won't feel great about the company's decision to hire you, but he doesn't have to include you in that bad-feeling. Try to pitch it in a way that shows that you're on his side and value his skills, and hope to make his job easier and more effectual.
posted by destructive cactus at 9:50 AM on July 25, 2017

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