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Take care when new boss is former colleague

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It’s hard to supervise your friends, especially if they were your co-workers before you were promoted into management.

Some new bosses overcompensate by cracking the whip on former colleagues. Others can’t shake their old relationships and look the other way when their subordinates break the rules. Either way, the organization suffers.

HR could solve this problem by banning promotions from within a particular function. But that’s not really practical, and could be a morale killer for upwardly mobile employees with potential.

The more realistic approach: Assume that lingering friendship could affect the supervisor/subordinate relationship. At least for a trial period, carefully review all discipline that the new boss wants to impose.

Recent case: Sonya, a nurse, and Maria, a nurse manager, worked together in a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) psychiatric treatment unit. Technically Maria supervised Sonya, but they still socialized outside work, and Maria was even part of Sonya’s wedding.

Then Maria was promoted to a higher supervisory role. When Sonya allegedly kicked a patient, Maria recommended a suspension. The friendship fell apart.

Then Sonya filed a harassment complaint, alleging that Maria had forwarded sexually oriented jokes and pictures. Meanwhile, complaints against Sonya piled up. Finally, based on reports from Maria and others, Sonya was fired for violating patient care rules.

Sonya sued, alleging retaliation for her earlier harassment complaint.

The court didn’t buy it. The employer showed it acted fairly, based on accounts of poor care brought by patients and co-workers. Sonya couldn’t prove that the allegations were so preposterous no one could honestly believe them. The VA hadn’t just accepted Maria’s account of the infractions—it checked with patients and co-workers, too. (Greene v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, No. 14-1312, 6th Cir., 2015)

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