Harvard Business Review — 15/02/2018 at 17:00

Should You Cover for a Friend’s Mistakes at Work?

by

girl9

It’s nice to have a friend at work who cares about you and looks out for your best interests. Research has even shown that it contributes to your engagement. The benefits of having a friend at work are clear, but what about the downsides? What happens when your friend starts to let things slip? How do you handle it when you notice they aren’t keeping up? Should you cover for them?

As with most difficult situations at work, there isn’t one right answer. The approach you take depends on a variety of factors. First, how worrisome are the slips? Will they create significant problems for your team, or even your customer? Next, how self-aware is your friend about their harmful behavior and the impact it’s having? Finally, how is your friend’s manager handling the situation? Is anyone other than you noticing the problem? The answers to these questions will help you decide when to intervene and how quickly to escalate from one of the following steps to the next.

The first couple of times your friend drops the ball, it’s perfectly acceptable to cover for them. When I say “cover,” I don’t mean hide the issue. I mean you can jump in and do the task yourself. For example, if your friend was supposed to guide a customer on a tour and is nowhere to be found, you might conduct the tour yourself. Covering could also mean you help diffuse any negative consequences by acting as a character witness, such as by saying, “I needed help a few times today, and Preet didn’t have time to get to the report he was working on. I know he’s focused on it now.” Importantly, you shouldn’t lie. Not only is it dishonest, but it could threaten both your standing and your friend’s if the lie is exposed.

As soon as you need to cover a second time, make sure you take the opportunity to let your friend know that their behavior had an impact. You don’t need to be formal about it, but you do need to raise your friend’s awareness of their behavior. You could say something simple, like, “You had a tour scheduled at noon. I covered it for you. Where were you?” If the answer causes you concern, you can probe a little further and see if there is something worrisome going on. Something as simple as “Is everything all right?” would do the trick.

If your friend continues to miss important duties, it’s time to be more explicit with your feedback. At this stage, share your experience of the person’s behavior and the impact it’s having on you. Now is the time to switch to more-formal feedback. Even the change in your language and tone will signal that something is wrong: “You were 30 minutes late for the team meeting this morning. I noticed Marie making a note in her book when you walked in. You’re probably going to hear about this at your next meeting with her. What’s up?”

If your friend is starting to take advantage of your generosity in covering for them, you should share the impact that their behavior is having on you: “You were 30 minutes late for the team meeting this morning. I had to cover the pipeline report for you. I felt unprepared and uncomfortable having to do it on the fly. What made you late?”

At some point, if your feedback isn’t working, you’ll need to change tacks. If every time your friend drops the ball, you’re there to catch it, the consequences might not be grave enough for them to change their ways. All you’ve done by covering for your friend is show them you’ll be accountable, so they don’t have to be. Now it’s time to let something drop.

Choose your spot wisely; don’t let something fall through the cracks that will be harmful to the team or visible to the customer. If your friend is ignoring internal deadlines or missing big chunks from the presentation they’re preparing, don’t save the day. Give your friend a heads up, and then leave it for them to fix the situation. For example, say, “I notice you don’t have the competitive analysis in your presentation yet. I know Frank is expecting it to be in the draft.” If your friend responds with puppy dog eyes and a plea for you to do that section, simply say “no,” or “I can’t.” Don’t make a big fuss over it, but stand firm.

At this point, if this person is really a friend, you’ll want to get a little more serious about understanding what’s going on. Is it a particularly busy time at home? If so, you can suggest the person ask for help from other members of the team, rather than leaving everyone in the lurch. If it’s something more worrisome, like a physical or mental health issue, your friend might be relieved to have someone to confide in. Don’t push if your friend isn’t comfortable discussing the problem. In that case, you can encourage them to seek support outside the office.

This might be the time to engage your friend’s manager in the conversation, particularly if the manager is supportive and focused on helping the team succeed. You can keep the conversation light and simply flag your concerns without causing alarm. For example, “I’ve noticed my friend has missed a couple of their deliverables this month. I asked them about it, but they didn’t say much. I’m worried. Would you have an opportunity to check in with them this week?”

Your approach needs to change as soon as your friend’s dereliction of duty threatens the financial, reputational, or legal standing of your organization. At that point, you need to put your responsibility to your company above your sense of obligation to your friend. As with all of the situations above, you should be telling your friend what you’re going to say before you say it: “I can’t let this one slide. The wrong shipment has gone to the client, and we need to rectify the situation before it causes problems for everyone.”

All of these scenarios, even the ones with the most basic comments to raise self-awareness, might feel uncomfortable. That’s a sign that you care about your friend and want to maintain the relationship. Remember, true friends are the ones who do the kind thing to protect you and support you in the long term, rather than saying what you want to hear in the short term.

If you have a friend who’s not pulling their weight, make it clear when you cover for them, share the impact their behavior is having on both of you, let the natural consequences of their inaction happen, and, if necessary, alert their manager if the repercussions of their behavior could have negative impacts on the team, the organization, or the customer. That’s what a real friend would do.


Liane Davey is the cofounder of 3COze Inc. She is the author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done and a coauthor of Leadership Solutions: The Pathway to Bridge the Leadership Gap. Follow her on Twitter at @LianeDavey.


Read this article on Harvard Business Review


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