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posted: 7/1/2012 7:44 AM

Work advice: Does the friendship justify the means?

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Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.

Q: I have gotten myself into a sticky situation at work. I recently hired a person who is a close personal friend; we have worked really well together on previous occasions. I hired her because she seemed enthusiastic about the work, but her performance, while solid, has not been dazzling. This would probably not be a huge issue, as I have other team members who are fabulous. Unfortunately, she has requested that I initiate a formal performance appraisal for her that will enable her to vie for promotion. If I initiate an appraisal, I believe my average scores and comments for her may compromise our friendship, but I am not prepared to falsify an appraisal to preserve our friendship.

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A: I'm glad to hear you won't submit a false appraisal, even for a pal. That would be bitterly unfair to her "fabulous" co-workers who have busted their butts, rather than assume that their friendship with you entitles them to a boost up the ladder.

Yeah, I know: Success in the workplace is often based on whom -- not what -- you know. But mediocre or substandard performers who get promoted solely because of their personal connections aren't fooling anyone. Sooner or later, everyone knows and their credibility (and that of their "sponsor") suffers.

But if you would do the appraisal for anyone in your group who asked, you should do it for her, too. Presumably, her promotion doesn't depend on your word alone. And if that's the case, you should submit an honest appraisal. If (when) she confronts you for giving her a lukewarm endorsement, say you did your best by her, but you couldn't give her higher scores than you've given others who volunteer for challenging projects, take initiative when problems arise, or whatever other quantifiable behaviors merit promotion at your workplace. Tell her that, for both your sakes, you don't want other employees saying she got promoted only because of your friendship.

You also might have an off-the-radar chat with someone higher in the chain of command. Explain that you have been asked to appraise an employee whose work is satisfactory, but that you're concerned about the appearance of impropriety because of your close friendship (see note below). This will (1) give management the opportunity to ask you to recuse yourself from the process and (2) subtly inform them that you aren't confident this person should be promoted.

Note: If you worry that acknowledging your prior friendship could jeopardize your jobs, you could leave your relationship out of it and say you want some third-party input on the appraisal. While that wouldn't get you off the hook for the appraisal, it could help ensure that your decision -- for or against promotion -- is unbiased.

Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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