Ask a Boss: I’ve Been Covering for My Friend’s Mistakes!

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Dear Boss,

I have a friend, “Meg,” and we both work at the same company but in different departments.

Meg is one of my closest friends, and we hang out all the time. She’s a lot of fun to be around, and she’s also been there for me through some difficult times. She’s an awesome friend, but kind of a difficult co-worker. As our work has evolved, we’ve had the occasion to collaborate more, and I’m starting to realize that she’s mistake-prone and often causes issues with my clients by being rude or inflexible with them. Things like ignoring them for long periods with no follow-up, forgetting to submit work on time, sending things last-minute with copy that’s factually inaccurate because she didn’t double-check and now there’s no time to fix it, telling clients their ideas are silly or pointless, disparaging the contributions of people we serve, being unwilling to compromise to the point of being unkind, etc.

No one’s perfect, and I certainly have made my share of mistakes and foot-in-mouth moments, but it’s starting to proliferate beyond what I’d consider typical. I’ve lost several key clients who have dealt with Meg, and they’ve been pretty explicit that their bad experiences with her were a major reason they left.

I’d prefer to let this shake out with her supervisors and not get involved, but I am more directly responsible for these accounts, whereas she’s only serving in a consulting role for them. While losing them doesn’t really affect her, it has a big impact on me and my review. Also, the only way they would really find out that she’s losing us business is if I tell them, because I can be a gatekeeper of sorts for client feedback.

When my supervisors ask me what happened, I’m always hesitant to really point the finger at her, but I also need to answer for the issue. In most cases, I’ve offered some vague platitudes in the vein of “I think we all could have done better,” or, “I’m not sure we were the right fit,” but it’s becoming obvious that I’m basically covering for her at my own expense. I know the right thing for a friend to do is probably to go to her and discuss this feedback instead of burying it, but a couple things:

1. I am not her supervisor, and I’m sure in her shoes I’d be sorta miffed if one of my peers came to me to discuss my work. It’s not my place, and I don’t think she’d understand that I’d be doing it as a sort of “Hey — heads up, I need to start being more honest about these things when they happen.” That is, I’m telling you as a courtesy because if I don’t tell you, I need to start telling some higher-ups.

2. She is an anxious person already, and she has a lot of trouble with criticism. She’s often tearful and so genuinely hurt when she does receive negative feedback from her supervisors, and I think in most cases it doesn’t really penetrate her Cloud of Defensiveness.

3. I don’t know how much she can actually improve — her manner tends toward brevity, she gets overwhelmed easily, and I don’t think her job is a fit for her. I know everyone can build skill sets, and I’m not writing her off, but I don’t think this is so much a lack of care as it is she’s in over her head and probably isn’t going to fix this overnight.

How do I do right by her friendship while still honoring my responsibility to my clients, my job, and myself? I don’t think continuing to enable her is the answer, but I don’t want to backstab her, either, or let her be blindsided. I know on some level I’ve created this dynamic, and it doesn’t seem like I’m owning my choices if I go from 100 percent covering for her, to 100 percent not. I would so appreciate some perspective.

Oh my goodness, you have to stop covering from her — your company is losing clients directly because of her, and when your managers ask you about it, you’re covering up the reason. That’s really serious. Like, really serious — to the point that it could have a significant impact on you professionally if they figure out what’s going on themselves and realize that you knew but didn’t tell them. That’s the kind of thing that will deeply shake your manager’s confidence in you, make people wary of giving you more responsibility, and affect your credibility for a long time to come.

So yes, you have an obligation to speak up, and that obligation is to your company and to yourself.

As for your obligation toward Meg: The friendship warrants you giving her a heads-up along the lines of “Hey, I’ve heard from several clients now that they’ve left because of X, Y, and Z. Jane has been asking me what’s happened, and I’m feeling pretty awkward about not relaying that. I want to be up-front with you that I need to start talking to her about what’s been going on. I really wish that weren’t the case, but I’m in a tough position here, and I can’t hide this stuff from Jane and others.”

If she gets miffed by that, that’s on her, not you. You’re doing the kind thing by being open with her, rather than not giving her any warning.

How she reacts is up to her, but it’s not an option for you to continue to cover for her, and most people would rather know that than be blindsided by it. (And really, she’s already benefited greatly from your friendship; you presumably wouldn’t have provided this kind of cover for a co-worker who wasn’t a friend. If she feels entitled to have you do that long-term, even if it means jeopardizing your professional standing and success … that’s pretty horribly selfish.)

The fact that she may not be able to actually fix her performance problems definitely sucks, but it doesn’t change how you should handle this. I mean, you can certainly be sympathetic if she talks to you about struggling with this stuff, and you can encourage her to think about whether the job is the right fit for her, or whether she should be actively looking elsewhere … but you still need what you need from the person in her job, and you still can’t hide what’s happening from your employer.

Some friends do not work out well as co-workers, unfortunately.

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