Working with Friends: Maintain Your Friendship By Being Businesslike

You have probably read about the dangers of working for friends as clients. Yet, despite warnings, many of us have, at one time or another, discounted or donated work to friends because we are nice and we like to help our friends.

In the end, this often turns out to be a bad idea and can damage a good friendship. If you decide to help your friends for free or a big discount, here are 4 suggestions on how to make this work better for both of you.

    1. Have a written contract and set limits on what is included in your offer. You may complete the work you offered to do for free or next to nothing, and your friend may come back for more work later with the expectation that you will work for free. You might think your offer was limited to one time, but they may think it is lifetime offer. It can feel awkward to get all business-like with your friend, but having a formal is important to maintain the value of your friendship and your business. Have contract that specifies what you are doing, and a limit on how much time you will spend, the duration of the work/offer and the scope of the project. If you have a barter/trade agreement, make sure the value of what each person is offering is specified and measured. This will set expectations and make the offer clear and avoid (most) misunderstandings.
    2. Communicate clearly and early. Even if you have a contract, misunderstandings and misinterpretations can happen. Bad feelings can build up over time and result in tension that is released in terse emails, bitterness and resentment. If you feel taken advantage of, if the scope has creeped beyond your agreement and you have just sucked it up and done the work anyway to avoid conflict and awkwardness, you share some responsibility for not having shared your feelings. Likely your friend does not know how to build a website, fix a car, install a wall outlet or whatever you specialize in and are trained for. Therefore, they may not know how much time and effort is involved, and may not realize they have imposed on you. Or, they may have taken your help for granted, and not done a good job of expressing their appreciation. Whether the scope has changed, or your business has changed since you made your agreement, it may be time to create a new contract or stop working together. Find a sensitive way to let them know that you cannot continue to work for them under the current arrangement any more, and that you have fulfilled your offer and any further work needs to be done under a new arrangement. Kindly explain that your work is your livelihood and your skills are developed from a lot of training and experience that have value.
    3. In person or phone interactions are better than email. Not only can email be misinterpreted because it is hard to convey a tone of voice in an email, it also drains your productivity focus. It’s easy to get wrapped up in writing, reviewing and editing email for an hour or more, trying to make it perfect. And once you send it, you will spend a lot of thought and worry waiting for the reply. Instead, write out some notes of the main points you want to communicate, and schedule a meeting or phone call to have an interactive conversation. This is more friendly and will help avoid painful misunderstandings.
    4. Carefully consider your offer and the precedent you are setting for yourself before you make it. Once word gets out that you work for friends for free, it’s hard to say no to other friends who ask for help. Consider having a policy you can refer to, such as giving a percent discount to friends and family. This makes it easy to be consistent and fair. And, if you decide that you cannot, or will no longer, work for free, stick to that commitment and be prepared to explain why you have made that decision (friendships are important to you, and discounting for friends can ruin a friendship).

    It might feel awkward and uncomfortable, but it is important in the long run to have the hard conversation at the beginning of your working relationship in order to maintain your friendship.

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