Is it ever OK for a manager to be friends with their employees?
Believe me, this isn’t just a question brand new manager’s struggle with (and most of them do). It’s an issue a lot of experienced managers are questioned about as well, and many of them don’t think it’s a problem at all.
The issue of “buddy to boss” might not be as black and white as you might think. Conventional management and HR 101 wisdom would tell you it’s absolutely not OK. In fact, some companies might even try to outlaw it through “cronyism” policies.
However, in the real world of work, emotions and relationships can’t be governed by policy. Workplace relationships are can be extremely tricky, just as personal or family relationships can be.
Managers are not robots – they have feelings and emotions. Sometimes you can’t help but like one employee more than another. Sometimes workplace romances blossom between managers and employees (that’s a whole other issue). So how can they be expected to just turn those emotions off when they enter company property?
Maybe it would be helpful to take a look at the definition of “friend”. According to Merriam-Webster, a friend is “one attached to another through affection or esteem; one that is not hostile, a favoured companion”.
Hmmm, I’ve been a manager for a long time, and that would be how I would describe A LOT of my employees. In fact, I would even use stronger words to describe my relationship with some past employees – words like close, supportive, caring, trusting, warm, fun, and respectful. I really enjoyed spending time with my employees, individually and in a group. We laughed, we cried, and we fought – just like friends, right?
I’ve said to more than one employee “You know, if I wasn’t your manager, I bet we could be great friends!”
Have I muddied the waters enough or raised a shadow of doubt?
Actually, this is one of those issues that as muddy as it may be, it turns out the conventional management and HR 101 wisdom is right on.
No matter how close a manager may feel to an employee, it should never be confused with a real “friendship”. You might be a “friendly” boss, and maybe even share some of the characteristics of a true friendship. You might even call it “a friend with boundaries”. However, the role of a manager transcends friendship and creates a boundary and potential scenarios that would never exist between true friends.
There are at least 10 reasons why it’s a bad idea for a manager and employee to call themselves friends, including:
- It will create a perception of favouritism. Even if you think you’re being 100% fair and unbiased, you’ll always be subject to being second guessed.
- You may not even realise it, but other employees are probably letting your “friends” get away with more, thinking that you’re going to protect them or side with them.
- If you allow yourself to get emotionally attached to one employee – for whatever reason – but not another, those emotions will consciously or unconsciously influence decisions around raises, redundancies, assignments, promotions, etc…
- If you see an employee as a “friend”, you’ll have expectations of that employee that are unrealistic or inappropriate for an employee. “Well gosh, a friend would never do that, or should do that, or should tell me everything, etc…”
- On the other hand, your friend employee may have expectations of you that are unrealistic or unprofessional, such as sharing confidential information, or always giving them advance notice, or doing special little “friendly” favours for them.
- As a manager, part of your job is to judge your employees, to give constructive feedback, and sometimes to discipline them, even fire them. Does this sound like something a friend would do to another friend?
- Although this threat never seems to scare managers, yes, it’s true – you and company could get sued. You are exposing yourself and your company to the risk of discrimination lawsuits. Don’t think it never happens… it does. That’s why HR people are so crazy about the issue – they are trying to protect your backside.
- ALL employees need to complain about their bosses now and then, even the best managers. You’re kidding yourself if you think you’re immune from this. However, if you see your employees as friends, you’re more likely to take it personally.
- Friends let their hair down outside of work and sometimes do silly things with each other. Managers are supposed to set examples and be role models. So, as a “manager-friend,” you’re either going to be a boring uptight, friend, or an unprofessional, immature manager. You pick. And by the way, your own manager may not appreciate those pictures of you and the gang all over employee Facebook pages.
Can you socialise with your employees? Or go out for a drink? Sure, but just make it a habit to stick to one drink and be the first to leave (to give them time to complain about you), or at least not the last to leave.
- Some employees may find your attempts to be friends as personally intrusive, or inappropriate. They might even find your “advances” to be creating a hostile work environment, and again, exposing yourself and your company to that old lawsuit thing.
What do you think? Is it ever OK for a manager to be friends with their employees?