Tips For Navigating Friendship With Someone In An MLM

On the heels of the girl boss era, multi-level marketing (MLM) businesses have attracted motivated women (and some men) in need of cash. However, they're often not the get-rich-quick strategy they may appear to be. A quick primer: MLMs, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, are companies that rely on individual sales made by "distributors" or "contractors." What sets them apart from other businesses is that participants can also earn money by recruiting sellers, creating a hierarchical network of representatives.


These schemes have developed a pretty bad reputation in recent years, and arguably for good reason. The Federal Trade Commission warns that some MLM companies are actually illegal pyramid schemes, and even if they are legitimate, most people who join will make little or no money. In fact, research by AARP Foundation discovered that 73% of MLM distributors lose money or just break even.

Even still, MLMs can seem like an attractive option for people in need of extra money, especially those who want to work independently. These businesses can be so alluring, you probably even have a friend who's joined one and can't stop talking about their bonuses or the "upline" who recruited them. If this sounds like someone in your life, here's how to navigate your friendship and protect your bestie from getting scammed.


First, know the signs

You might notice your friend talking a lot about their new business venture lately or that they're suddenly posting products on their social media accounts. It's important to take a step back to determine if they're starting a harmless side hustle or actually swept up in a shady MLM — especially if they're asking for your support. One of the first signs your friend may be involved in an MLM is that they've been love bombed by their boss or recruiter. "The MLM rep praises your intelligence in an attempt to stroke your ego, and then preys on your fear that you're not doing enough with your life," marketing director Patrick Ward shared with HuffPost. Asking your friend how they were recruited may tip you off to this particular red flag.


Another sign: Your friend is hyper-focused on recruiting. In most businesses, a newcomer wouldn't be responsible for hiring new people, right? However, this is precisely how MLMs work. If they're trying to pitch joining the company, chances are it's an MLM.

Finally, notice if their friend group — or at least how many friends they have on Facebook — is expanding. Ex-MLM distributor Josie Naikoi told BuzzFeed that contractors are taught to friend request "as many people as possible" and send cordial messages before eventually moving on to selling and recruiting. They may even slide into the DMs of your family members and co-workers, including those they've never met.

Hear them out

Even if you're sure your friend's new job is nothing more than a multi-level marketing scam, hold off on lecturing them about the dangers of MLMs — they may grow defensive or cut you off completely. Instead, consider what factors led them to join, or, if you're close enough, ask them directly. They might be struggling to pay bills, for instance, and feel desperate for a solution. "If you don't have many opportunities [...] when someone comes along and says 'I can make you rich and you've got everything you need to succeed' then, of course, that looks very attractive," London Business School's assistant professor of organization behavior Dr. Raina Brands told Refinery29.


As their friend, it's important to be empathetic to their needs, even if you don't agree with their method of fulfilling them. Although MLMs can be notoriously toxic, they tend to appeal to certain disadvantaged groups — such as single moms or retirees — for a reason. Listen to your bestie's intentions and what they're hoping to get out of their new gig. Not only will this help you view them through a more empathetic lens, but it may also come in handy if or when you decide to help them leave their MLM later.

Don't enable them

Perhaps the hardest part of navigating a friendship with an MLM member is dealing with the pressure to buy their products or join their downline. Though you may feel like a bad friend, not giving in is one of the best moves you can make. "One of the most common mistakes people make when their friends are in an MLM is that they buy products from them," the unnamed manager of anti-MLM site Botwatch revealed to Vice. "They feel like they want to support their friend but don't realize they are feulling [sic] false hope." Similarly, if a friend asks you to lend money to help them boost their inventory or pay for training materials, gently decline.


Hopefully, your bestie will lose interest in their money-making venture once they see that their friends aren't on board. In fact, the top reason people choose to leave multi-level marketing is because they found it too awkward to sell to friends and family, per a 2018 AARP study.

However, don't be surprised if your MLM friend goes MIA after you've turned down their pitches. Friendship fallout is a real risk, with more than 25% of Gen X and millennial Americans claiming to have lost a friend due to an MLM, according to a LendingTree survey.

Offer alternative solutions

Remember when you listened to your friend explain their reasons for joining an MLM? If you notice that they're struggling — such as by losing money or growing distant from loved ones who reject their sales talk — help them recognize other options, using the information they shared before. For example, if your friend joined an MLM to escape financial hardship, and now their MLM side hustle is plunging them deeper into debt, you can mention other (read: legitimate) job opportunities or subtly suggest they polish up their old résumé. Or if they said they joined an MLM for a sense of community, invite them to hang out with your friend group more often.


Keep in mind, however, that unsolicited advice isn't often received well. PsychCentral points out that giving advice no one asked for can sound critical and judgmental, even if you genuinely want to help. Make sure to keep your recommendations casual, or wait for your friend to admit that they're struggling and need help before giving feedback. And if they don't take your advice, accept that they may need to figure things out for themselves in their own time.

Consider how tight your friendship is

If your BFF joins an MLM, you might feel personally invested in helping them — after all, you love them like family and want to protect them. However, your approach should be different when dealing with someone you're not as close with. The stereotype of MLM distributors is that they're random people you went to school with, sliding into your DMs to recruit you into their downline. If this sounds like your MLM friend, or they're someone else in your life who you don't share a close bond with, accept that it's not your place to encourage them to leave their company. Even if "The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe" — a damning documentary about MLM empire LuLaRoe — totally turned you off and you're passionately against MLMs, your message may not get through to a casual friend or old acquaintance you barely know now.


Since you're not close, know that it's okay to decline invitations to their product parties or recruitment propositions, no excuse needed. If you struggle with people-pleasing and find it hard to say no, simply explain that you don't want to mix business with friendship or that you're trying to cut back on your spending.

And what about a not-so-close friend or co-worker who only talks about their MLM whenever you run into each other? If it's gotten to the point where you hardly remember the person behind the pitches, cut back on how often you meet or politely excuse yourself from the conversation when you bump into them.

Talk to your friend — and bring in backup

MLMs may not be detrimental to everyone who joins them, but they're damaging — or at least not financially lucrative — for most sales representatives. Yet some people get stuck in multi-level marketing schemes, determined to make it work. "In many ways, MLMs can be as addictive as gambling," co-host of the podcast "Sounds Like MLM But OK" Sasha Zazzi shared with Vice. "You're constantly told that you have to pay money to make money, and that you're just a few months' hard work away from crazy success. So you keep putting money down, thinking this time will be different, this time you'll make it back."


If your bestie is on the brink of losing it all to their MLM, confront them directly. Enlist the help of others who are concerned, too, though be careful to not gang up on your friend. Whether you organize an intervention-style discussion or split up and talk to your friend individually, the conversations should remain supportive and empathetic. As Dr. Raina Brands explained to Refinery29, "You need to make it psychologically safe for people to fail, messages like 'nobody is going to think worse of you if you pull out now' and 'people don't mind you taking a chance but you don't have anything to prove' because I think a lot of it is the feeling of needing to save face, and a lot of that is internal actually."