Why employers and employees can’t be friends

Two friends at work standing back to back

This month Iqbal Wahhab looks at the friendships with employees and why he believes that employers and employees shouldn’t be friends 

Do we place too much store in friendship with our employees? Recently an exciting deal I had been working on turned sour and my lawyers said there was a clear case for me to sue.

When we delved into what had happened, it turned out that a prime mover against me was a former employee of mine who had become a good friend. I would have had to sue him too, and without thinking any further, I dropped the case. I wouldn’t drag him into what would have become a public humiliation of a former mentee.

Similarly, a newspaper columnist friend told me she once convinced her editor to take on an ambitious young journalist, who swiftly climbed the ranks to take over the top position and one of his early acts was to sack her. It’s the stuff you see in episodes of Dallas and Game of Thrones, or read in Julius Caesar, which you don’t imagine happening in real life.

I was telling these two stories to a friend of mine who is a judge. He said he came across so many cases where instead of undivided loyalty to the person who helped them rise in their companies, the opposite happens and the sponsor of the rising star gets shot in the process by means more often foul than fair.

There’s an obvious psychological trait that can be detected here; someone who rises to a position of prominence wants the story to be all about them and not share the limelight with the person who was instrumental in getting them there.

The narrative isn’t quite so compelling if you attribute your success to someone else. And indeed they construct new narratives that eliminate the sponsor’s role in their success to the point where they actually believe their lies.

After a moment of anger, I lamented the condition of the person who opposed me. A while later I thought about how I should avoid anything similar happening again without entering the world of distrust, which can only be harmful in a business, where we seek to unlock the potential of employees.

We can’t run our businesses thinking, which one of these people is going to cheat me? In our restaurant we have CCTV cameras covering all spaces – including over the cash tills – but that’s a precautionary move, and only a potential pilferer would object to it.

I imagine there are many business leaders who fill their heads with conspiracy theories not just about competitors but also people closer to home. It would be miserable if I thought that way, and I won’t let one person’s callous act alter my generally optimistic view of human nature.

The same holds true in the relationship between founders and investors. Here, you do want them to be your friends because if they aren’t and things go wrong, you soon see their ugly side.

I had a business once that my investors didn’t like and have seen up close and personal the lethal combination of an under-performing company and an investor who doesn’t like you.

If friends see me tell off a manager or a waiter, they tell me off. My reply has always been the same, namely that I don’t go there to make friends – I go to work to make money.

The person who let me down for his own gain may have thought I was his well-wisher and would only want what was best for him. I suspect he feels guilty about what he has done because he still writes and sends messages to me, which I now ignore.

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century philosopher, observed that “life is nasty, brutish and short”. I believe a firm boundary should be kept between employer and employees.

It would be unwise to do things, even occasionally, outside work with the team. Such cosiness can lead to blurred lines – a risk your business can do without taking.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. You can tweet him @IqbalWahhab


Can employers and employees be friends?

Here’s what two other business leaders think

About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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