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Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Your employees, if you’re especially lucky, are people that you generally like. I can only think of two very specific times that this was not true for me, but I digress. After all, you’ve hand-selected them, trained them, taken them under your wing. But the harsh reality for managers and supervisors is to understand that although they are wonderful, they are not your friends. They are your employees.

Next thing you know, you’re flirting with a dangerously contentious policy violation. Yes, I recommend being genuinely kind, caring or friendly with your team, but the line has to be drawn somewhere in order to preserve balance in the workplace and for you to maintain trust, respect, and manage expectations. Ah yes…Management: wrecking friendships since the pyramids were built. So let’s get real about this with a few examples:

  • Getting promoted over your peers. Awkward…you got the promotion you earned and now your work buddies think you’re working with the fuzz. One of them got passed over for the same promotion, and the other is relieved it’s you who’s boss because now she thinks you will give her a pass on poor performance. Even better, you now have to figure out the best way to deal with these guys because they work for you. This scenario may be the true test of friendship because you will be required to draw boundaries in places where perhaps there were none. It is important that you make it clear to your buddies that you value their friendship (if you do) and that although things may be a bit different around the office for a while, you trust that they will respect your decision to behave as a consummate professional. Chances are, depending on the position, you’ll need to start making new friends. Bear in mind, there may be topics about work that you can no longer freely laugh about and discuss. If your buddies respect this change with maturity, they will understand and adapt. This is no longer a relationship between equals.

  • Hanging out with your staff outside work hours. Yes! You want to be the “fun boss” cranking through drinks like a college student and singing karaoke loudest (and with the most authentic celebrity swagger)…but at what cost? While team-building gatherings are strongly recommended to increase and maintain employee engagement, as the leader, you are still on the clock.

I had this epiphany at the office holiday party, where I had to serve as a human prophylactic to prevent one of my staff from embarrassing himself and the young lady he was inappropriately dancing with at the time. Not a fun job, but a necessary one when the eyes of the human resources team were steadily widening during this spectacle which was quickly turning into an X-rated romp. However, I was cool about it. After I cut in, I danced with him (at a much more appropriate distance) and explained my actions to my employee. Then I danced him over to the sideline so he could, um, adjust himself.

Another example is happy-hour-gone-wild, when the boss goes out for drinks with members of the team, gets wasted, and then wonders why some of them are late for work the next morning. Be mindful of potential liabilities that are created over a few seemingly innocent drinks. While some may be as elementary as appearing to favor some employees over others or setting the stage for tardiness and excessive absences, others can be as complicated as DUI arrests, accidents, and worse. This is not a PSA for driving under the influence; this is a warning that you and your company can possibly be held liable for consequences that result from work-related functions. Use caution.

  • Messaging casually outside of work hours. Limited messages pertaining to work are acceptable. However, once these messages begin to involve more personal revelations, beware! Ignorance is truly bliss when it comes to your employees’ personal lives. You can show care and concern for their personal well-being without assigning yourself a co-starring role for every dramatic episode. Sometimes your employees will trust you enough to confide personal matters with you, which is an honor. Listen to them, allow them to vent (during a time and place that is not interruptive to the workplace, e.g. a break room, an office), and then assess whether or not it is appropriate for you to ask “what can I do to help?” Inviting this conversation is critical to fulfilling your commitment to build a relationship with your employees. Make certain that he/she is not in any imminent danger and be a sounding board. Discouraging this type of communication after work hours may be challenging, but necessary if the content becomes too personal in nature. Remember that email and text messages read like a paper trail. Make sure the content and context are suitable for your boss, your mother, and your reverend/priest/minister to read—catch my drift?

  • Being connected on social media. Like private messages, social media has become more and more of a managerial quagmire to navigate. Privacy bears no meaning once you have logged into a social media platform. Be mindful of the image you portray online. If you accept your employees to connect or follow you on social media, they will likely follow whatever example you have set forth. On the other hand, being connected with them may make you privy to information that will make want to bleach your eyes. Refer to your company’s social media policy to be sure you are not toeing any lines. Also, do not take it personally if your employees DO NOT want to connect with you on social media. Do not create a story around their choice.

  • Being afraid of being “the bad guy”. Understandably, you want to enjoy some element of work too. You want to have fun; you want to be fun! Often it is difficult to leverage your winning charm and love for dirty jokes with being taken seriously as a boss. Drawing this distinction clearly for your staff might be the hardest boundary to establish, but it is also the most important. Remember you have responsibilities that include performance evaluation and correction, creating a fair and equitable work environment, making all of your employees feel safe, and then, of course, is the dreaded termination. When the fish rots from the head, you have already missed your opportunity to draw the line in the sand and face your fear of not being liked. Swapping popularity for respect is a costly managerial mistake that will poke holes in your credibility and integrity, effectiveness, and productivity.


How to be friends with your employees LIKE A BOSS. All of this is not to say that managers must be lone wolves in the workplace, only commiserating with fellow managers skulking in darkened break rooms. However, you do have a responsibility to manage perceptions whenever possible, eliminate favoritism, reduce undue feelings of obligation or fear of retribution, and give unbiased performance feedback and coaching. Piece of cake, right? Keep reading for some tips on on being a powerful leader and friend.

So start by being clear within yourself what a friend really is to you. Yes, you may absolutely have employees who meet the criteria of friend for “a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” It will be up to how you both balance your personal and professional relationships during your time working together. Seriously consider not being connected on social media to prevent boundaries from getting blurred. Master your conflict resolution skills—you will need it in how you navigate your work relationships as well as your friendships. You will need to be extremely comfortable with the discomfort of proactively managing potentially emotional conflicts and communicating like a champion. Lastly, be full disclosure. Transparency will help you to help others set realistic expectations. This means be clear and up front with your employees from the beginning. You have the power to create balance by making certain everyone is on your page from go. Set the tone.

Now, go forth...and be friendly!

(Dedicated to my dearest friend Amanda—“professional only!”)

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