Q: My friend “Alice” and I are co-managing a huge project at work, with lots of contributors. We work in academia, and the politics of the situation make it difficult to correct colleagues who aren’t pulling their weight. Even though we are “in charge,” these colleagues know they don’t answer to us. We had to appoint people to chair portions of this project, and I appointed another friend, “Dan,” who I honestly thought would do a good job. Alice is no fan of Dan, but she admitted he had the credentials.
Dan totally bombed on his part of the project — factual inaccuracies, outright plagiarism, way less output than required. Alice and I had to pull several all-nighters to get the work done. Alice doesn’t blame me for appointing Dan, but she is understandably furious at him.
Dan has been a good work friend to me. I think the project was just too much for him and that he did the best he could. He has already told me how hard it was, how hard he worked, how proud he was of it.
Alice wants to confront Dan. When she does, Dan will ask me about it. If I am honest with Dan, I will harm our friendship. He’s got an ego, like many in academia. Also, Dan is a darling among the administration. It would not be worth it to make a stink. But I owe Alice the honesty of not contradicting her. How can I soften it as much as possible without making it look like Alice is wrong?
A: Sounds like it’s not just the administration that dotes on Dan. You and Alice had to put in overtime to compensate for his unacceptable submission — I mean, factual errors? Plagiarism?! — and you’re still looking for ways to protect his ego because you want him to like you.
This is how charismatic dopes end up running things. It’s also a reminder that credentials do not equal competence.
Alice deserves so much more than “not contradicting her.” She deserves your full support as well as Dan’s share of the credit for everything she had to correct or do over. Both of you deserve Dan’s apologies for accepting a commitment and not following through, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that.
I understand you’re not Dan’s supervisor or mentor, and you have no influence over his performance. But even as his friend, you’re doing him no favors by letting him coast on his mediocrity, oblivious to the resentment he’s causing.
Professional responsibility has a role here, too. If not for your friendship, would you want to work with him again? If not, why would you allow someone else to fall into the same trap?
Dan sounds like the kind of guy who has skated through life letting classmates carry his weight on group projects and schmoozing higher grades out of instructors. If that’s so, he’s due for a reckoning before he torpedoes someone else’s project or coasts into a career-ending fiasco that he can’t charm his way out of. That reckoning is more likely to stick if it’s brought to him by a friend.
There’s no way to “soften” the objective truth that, despite his allegedly best efforts, his work failed to meet quality standards and required significant time and effort to correct. Nobody enjoys hearing that. You can make clear that the criticism is not personal, and emphasize how difficult it is for you to critique a friend’s work — but you must also make clear that you agree with Alice on the poor quality of his contribution, so he can’t dismiss it as just a personal vendetta. And, worst case, if he’s malignant and tries to retaliate by complaining to his pals in the administration, it’s all the more important for you and Alice to present a united front.
No, Dan might not thank you for your honesty. If his friendship with you depends on your unalloyed praise and admiration, it might not survive the conversation. But a friendship like that definitely isn’t worth the cost of your personal and professional integrity.