Should I employ a friend in my business?

Toby Brand, founder of fashion outlet BR4ND, discusses why appointing a buddy worked for his business, and why it might for yours.

The killer question as a small business owner: should you employ someone who is also your friend? The knee-jerk reaction is probably no, because people tend to assume that mixing business and friendship is a risky decision.  But is it? Well, I went against that school of thought (much like my business philosophy in general), and I appointed a close friend to run the day-to-day operations of my business. Although I do believe there are pros and cons to employing people you know well, I also feel there are a number of business benefits to be had for entrepreneurs like myself, providing the circumstances are right.

Much like any solid relationship, working with a friend is all about trust. When I set up BR4ND I was a final year student at Northumbria University, so having someone I trust completely working alongside me meant I could focus on my studies without needed to check up every single minute. Knowing your livelihood is potentially in somebody else’s hands most of the time means taking a big risk (something that many small business owners are used to doing), but providing it is the right decision, it can be a risk that really pays off.  

It cuts both ways

So, what should you consider if you are thinking of going down this route? Start by asking yourself how well you know that person. Can you trust them? Are you able to switch from being a friend into a motivational business leader when appropriate? Having a sense of humour day to day is great (and important) but at the end of the day if you can’t comfortably make the transition from humour to business professional, it could all turn into one big joke at the expense of your venture.

From the outset you need to agree that business is business and if the mixing of business and friendship is going to work, while you may not agree on every single thing, you can’t take things too personally (that cuts both ways). You should also consider how important that particular friendship is to you because when you leave the office at the end of the day you still need to be able to look each other in the eye as friends; if you can’t do that then the friendship is the first thing that will suffer (and that means business could suffer too).

Be clear on the relationship boundaries

Working towards a common goal is also vital but you need to gauge the levels of authority too. For me personally, I felt that if I asked my friend to regard me simply as ‘the boss’ that might not deliver the best result from a business perspective. I believe as soon as you use terms to try and hold authority over people you lose that all important peer connection. I wanted it to feel more as if we are partners in this, that way everyone believes in what they’re doing and why they are doing it, rather than feeling like ‘just another employee’. It’s all about motivation and team spirit really and that is even more important when employing a friend because it is all too easy to take them for granted and just assume that as your friend, they’ll naturally be bursting with enthusiasm for your business – when the reverse may be true. 

Also, when it comes to relationships at work, traditional work/office ethics should still apply. Although some couples can make a family/small business work really well when such a relationship is established before the outset of the business, working with a friend should remain as a business relationship. Perhaps even more so with a friend as you are already at a different personal level than you ever would be with an employee who you don’t know at all at the outset. Business is tough enough without distractions and the potential backlash effect of other employees becoming uncomfortable.

Resolving conflict

Resolving conflict is also another dynamic to consider but this is really about demonstrating good leadership skills. You need a certain level of maturity and to avoid throwing your toys out of the pram simply because they’re your friend (and you feel you should be able to be yourself). Take care to assess both sides of an argument and come up with a rational agreement – remember, you might be the boss, but it doesn’t mean you’re always right.

If you do decide to appoint a friend, it’s quite important that your personalities compliment one another’s to a certain extent. For example if you’re both very headstrong and stubborn teaming up like this is a recipe for disaster for both your business and your friendship. When it comes to this kind of working dynamic, being different is usually a good thing.

Trust your instincts

If you get it right, employing a friend can be brilliant. While the formalities of the business world are obviously there every time we have a meeting, are making business negotiations or are interviewing a new fashion designer for the site, when we’re just working together daily, it’s also a very fun, supportive and friendly environment to be part of.

So, when all is said and done should you employ a friend? It’s horses for courses; I did and it was one of the best business decisions I’ve made. But don’t forget you also need to choose the best person for the job regardless of your social connection. Never simply offer someone a job just because they are your friend because you’ll probably live to regret it. Mixing business with friendship works best when that person is simply the best person for the job. Trust your instincts, if it feels wrong it probably is.

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