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Our employee is a friend (but she is turning into a monster!)

Thumb nose illustration by Franke James, MFA.;  © franke james

Dear Office-Politics,

Help! My husband and I founded our business together over 25 years ago. We have been actively involved in the business together as partners. I am well qualified with vast business experience, including being a legal secretary. The company grew steadily and was profitable.

Flash forward: We started a new company when we were swindled out of our former business. Our growth has necessitated hiring more help – 2 friends, and our daughter-in-law. One woman is extraordinarily intelligent, and very capable. She apparently thinks it is her job to run the office completely and seems annoyed whenever I’m involved. She knows that I am her supervisor and “boss.” She has defined part time hours. My husband told her in a joint meeting that she was the office manager (my title) without speaking with me about it.

I often work at my home office. I’m at the office about 3 times per week to get a ‘pulse’, and telephone nearly every day. In addition, I have regular meetings with this woman to discuss office issues. She was hired for the job and also to help bring in some fresh ideas.

We seemed to have created a monster! My husband and I have repeatedly told her she cannot stay past her shift. She does anyway (one to two hours) – even though the time slot is covered. I was looking forward to an office meeting we were getting ready to have to discuss issues and get comfortable with each other. She had the meeting WITHOUT me. I called her on it, and she told me it will likely happen again – because she doesn’t “understand” my point of view. I have tried to make her recognize that even if she doesn’t agree with the way we do some things – she still needs to honor my instructions. However, she has disrespected me – challenging my authority and fighting me (in her “nice” way). We had what I thought was a great meeting recently, but the same issues arose again anyway.

This gets complicated because our husbands are best friends. Although a friend, she is even a closer friend to my husband. They work together every morning, even praying together! My husband refuses to talk about this issue and says it’s “no big deal.” He and this couple are going on a week’s vacation together soon as I stay to run things.

Thanks much,

Office Manager/Boss

OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY FRANKE JAMES
franke james

Dear Office Manager/Boss,

Running a family business is a double-edged sword – I know because I’ve run a creative design business with my husband for 20 years. It can be a joy – because you can be “Master of your own destiny.” But when employee issues like yours crop up, it can impact your job and your marriage, 24/7. So you have to find a way to diffuse the situation at work before it wreaks havoc on your romantic relationship.

To me, the central issue in your letter is power and fairness. You have power as one of the owners of the company, but the employee (let’s call her Hilary) has power too. Before we talk about the power Hilary wields, I’m curious whether you have established an equal partnership with your husband. Are you listed on legal documents as 50% owner of the company? I hope you are! And if you’re not this issue might be the time for you to assert your rights and claim them.

Based on your statement “My husband told her in a joint meeting that she was the office manager (my title) without speaking with me about it.” I would say that your husband is viewed by employees as the “Boss.” And that his word is the final one. That doesn’t seem fair, especially if you are equal partners. So what can you do?

You have to step forward and assert yourself.
You have to tell Hilary, and your husband, that you are not a doormat.

For example, why on earth is your husband, plus Hilary and her husband going on a week’s vacation without you? Why are you being left to “run things”?

It seems to me that Hilary is your employee, and she is the one who should be left to run the shop, while you enjoy a vacation. By allowing this threesome to go away together while you mind the shop, you are setting yourself up as the “odd man out”. When the trio gets back they will have bonded further. And you may feel resentful. How does this make sense? There must be good reasons why you are not going – but surely you can find a way to accompany the three of them (or leave Hilary behind). Can’t you hire someone for the week? Or even (and this may be hard to fathom) shut the office for one week while you are on a “company retreat”?

The threesome’s vacation undermines your power
So aside from the threesome’s vacation – which is only going to undermine your power — what are your options in dealing with Hilary? By your account she is a problem. Probably if you could wave a magic wand you would fire her. But all employees (even ones we don’t like) have legal rights. If you are thinking of firing her (and are willing to suffer the friendship fallout), you’ll need to build a case that can stand up in court. It doesn’t sound like your husband would support that action – but if he understood your viewpoint, he might realize that for the happiness of your marriage, Hilary has to go. I don’t think personality conflicts are strong grounds for firing someone, so you’ll want to document through written performance reviews why she is not a suitable employee any longer.

Flip this problem around
But let’s flip this problem around and think… Is there a way you can use Hilary to your advantage? You say she’s “extraordinarily intelligent, and very capable”. That would indicate she’s helping your business be more profitable which is in your best interests. But she’s treading on your territory, which makes you annoyed and causes stress all round. So how can you make the most of Hilary and yet enjoy peace and harmony at work and at home?

One answer – and this may be difficult for you to consider – is to let Hilary be the “office manager.” If you stepped back totally how would that change your life? You’d still be 50% owner. You could maintain the power of decisions on big issues — but you would be free now to do other things. Perhaps you have always dreamed of doing something in life – developing a hobby into a business, or helping a charity, or learning a new skill… whatever. This might be the perfect time to make that happen.

Even if you won’t seriously consider stepping back – it could be a good negotiating tactic with your husband. The vacation scenario sounds like you are being taken for granted. Has the thought ever crossed his mind that you might not want to stay? The fear of you leaving might make him sit up and take notice – and work harder to give you equal decision-making power in the office.

The problem is if you do issue an ultimatum, you have to be willing to walk.

To wrap up: I think your issue is with your husband, not Hilary (you will always have employee issues no matter who you hire). You need to get agreement from your husband that you are equal partners (by law and in practice).

If you agree with this line of reasoning, I suggest you call a meeting. Ask your husband to speak to Hilary – with you present – and let her know that you share power equally. And that your directions carry as much weight as his. And then give her written instructions, with time-lines, deliverables and follow-up meetings to check her performance.

If you don’t use it, you lose it.
If you are equal partners with your husband, I suggest you exert that power starting now. That “company retreat” might be the opportunity to do just that. It sounds like a nice reward for all your hard work and dedication.

Here is another reply letter on family politics which you may find helpful: It deals with the classic dilemma: How do you deal with a husband who overrules your directions to staff?

Animal training to solve office politics problems
http://www.officepolitics.com/advice/?p=314

I hope this helps. Please let me know your feedback! Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Franke

Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game

_________________________________________________________

Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of Dear Office-Politics: the game everyone plays a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

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  1. One Answer to “Our employee is a friend (but she is turning into a monster!)”

  2. Dear Franke,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write me and help me with this thorny issue. I think you have some excellent suggestions for me to mull over. That you would take the time and do this for me is a mind-blower! I can’t thank you enough.

    In a way, it’s been a blessing that she and my husband were gone this week. It’s given me more time to calm down and think about some things and not react in the moment (which could have been disastrous).

    I thank you for the suggestion that I might keep her as office manager. I was coming close to sitting down with her (we are meeting this Tuesday) and letting her know that we have always run the business . That’s how our vendors and clients know me, with that “title.” Also, I think it conveys authority. However, I don’t think it is good practice, as a general rule, to take something away from an employee. Still thinking that one over . . .

    Thanks also for your empathy, as you know first hand the pros and cons of having close friends and/or family work for you.

    As I continue to think this over, I still need to find a way for her to respect my decisions and input. It still kind of irritates me that she had a meeting we both discussed specifically that was to include all of us – the first with 2 new hires.

    The Animal Training letter was also very appropriate!

    Sincerely,

    OM/Boss

    By Letter-writer: Office Manager/Boss on Sep 30, 2009

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