New boss confronts friends who were peers

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Dear Joan:
I work in a payroll department for a company that has around 300 employees.  Our accounting office, however, is small with only ten women covering all departments.  I have worked and became friends with several of the women for 12 years. I was recently told I will be receiving a promotion to office manager, when the current one retires (roughly 3-5 years). 
 
My problem is two of my co-workers, who are friends I adore outside of work, but disapprove of some of their working habits.  They talk constantly on the phone on personal conversations, sometimes to the tune of two hours a day, and surf on the internet.  One day, I timed the co-worker at the desk next to me (we are in small close quarters) and she was on a personal phone call for one hour.  I needed some information from her and had to put a project off for that time period.  Our company is very lax in supervision and we are in a slow period at this time, so the co-workers don’t feel it is necessary to offer help to anyone else when they are low on work. 
 
I know it will be several years before I get into the management position and there are certain things that I would like to address immediately, once I am in that job.  My question is I know that once I try to install the new rules and procedures, that I will probably cause a problem with one of the friendships. 
 
Should I start backing away from the friendship at this point, to prevent problems in the future?  I am told they frown on socializing between the accounting department and the office manager.  But at the same time, they stress that the company is a not a prison and refuse to treat the employees that way, which I agree with. But the discontent from the other workers who work hard all day, and see the behavior, has started to create friction in the office. 
 
I have tried to address some of the issues with our current office manager, and her response is, not everyone will have the same work ethics and habits as I do.  They are extremely good at their jobs, when they are working, and the management is content with that.  Any suggestions would be appreciated.
 
Answer:
It seems as if your manager has already retired on the job, but hasn’t left yet. It makes me wonder if senior management agrees with her lax attitude about your coworkers’ work habits. Is the business so profitable they can afford to have staff tie up phone lines and surf the net on company time? And what about management’s responsibility to enforce work rules equitably? By letting this behavior go on, don’t they realize they are demotivating the good employees, who put in a full day and don’t “steal” company time?
 
You may be flattered to know you have been chosen to take over in a few years, but you could be in for a frustrating experience, if senior management doesn’t back you up when you put your foot down. In cases like this, I’ve often seen employees go over the new manager’s head to complain, or sabotage the boss behind his or her back, when they knew senior management didn’t have the spine to stand firm with the manager.
 
You have done all you can for now. Speaking with your manager was the right thing to do…and it’s clear she isn’t going to rock the boat before she leaves. If people are already showing discontent, expect it to grow over the next few years. There is a good chance it will come to a head in the not too distant future.
 
In the meantime, I recommend that you still remain friendly but limit the amount of social time you spend with your peers. Apparently, they aren’t aware of the promise that was made to you, so you can make your move slowly, over time. You can also lead by example. When you hit a slow patch, suggest that you all reach out to help another area, or find a proactive project –cleaning out files, brainstorming ways to cut expenses, learning a new software application, surveying internal customers about your “customer service.”
 
Frankly, I’m a little surprised that you were made a promise so far in advance (take a lesson from the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien debacle). Perhaps they are hoping to keep you from leaving, since you are the strongest performer. A lot can happen in five years. Your supervisor may decide she wants to keep working for the health care benefits, you may get another job offer, or the organization could experience financial trouble… In other words, don’t start acting like the boss just yet.
 
In the meantime, study the leaders around you to determine what techniques work and which ones don’t. Read books and articles on the subject, to get ready. Then when/and if you get the job, you will need to meet with each of your direct reports alone and in a group, to lay out your expectations. (Make sure your boss backs you up.)
 
If your former peers balk, explain that you know they are talented and good at what they do, so you want to tap their skills to make the department better. Then engage them in proactive projects that will make them too busy to chat on the phone. If they resist, firmly coach them back to your expectations. If they continue to resist, explain that you know it’s hard to work for a former peer, and someone who has higher standards, but that is the way you want to run the department. If they fight you, let them know they could lose their jobs, and add, “I hope you won’t make me do that.” If they are mature, they will acquiesce—any may even be excited to be challenged again.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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