Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I’m Your Boss, Not Your Friend; 10 Reasons Why Your Boss Shouldn’t be Your Friend

Is it ever OK for a manager to be friends with their employees?

Believe me, this isn’t just a question brand new managers 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 favored 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:

1. It will create a perception of favoritism. Even if you think you’re being 100% fair and un-biased, you’ll always be subject to being second guessed.

2. You may not even realize 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.

3. 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, layoffs, assignments, promotions, etc….

4. If you see an employee as a “friend”, you’ll have expectations of that employee that are unrealistic or inappropriate for an employee. “Well gee, a friend would never do that, or should do that, or should tell me everything, etc…”

5. 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” favors for them.

6. 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?

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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 oh by the way, your own manager may not appreciate those pictures of you and the gang all over employee Facebook pages.

Can you socialize 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.

10. 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?

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38 comments:

spunyarn said...

It is easier said than done, if you could tell one practical guideline thing to a new boss, who is now supervising his buddies, to establish the difference between boss from buddy what would that be.

Thanks for your insipiring blog post.

Michael Edward Kohlman said...

Hey Dan,

This is an issue that has been a topic of discussion for myself over the years as well. One of the things that has surprised me (and I’m guessing from the content of your post it has occasionally caused the same reaction from you) is the number of times I’ve actually surprised others when expressing the same opinions.

While I’ve been fortunate enough to have generally been surrounded by direct reports that I really like, the fact is that I tend to see things from the same perspective; it is exceptionally difficult to build a close “personal” relationship with people in which you have to play the role of motivator, mentor, coach, and (occasionally) disciplinarian. I don’t really recommend it either.

One of the key things that has always been a hot button for me (and I think is a part of the whole friend/not friend issue) is the BS statement issued by business professionals, politicians, and bad movie gangsters throughout the ages: “It’s not personal, It’s business”. The fact is that for the person being affected by the decisions of a leader (be they good, bad, or indifferent), it is always VERY personal to them. Good leaders make decisions that daily have an influence on someone’s development, compensation, opportunities, and rewards. How can the recipient not see it as personal? Keeping a measure of distance prevents the perception that the negative moments are based on some kind of emotional bias and can avoid situations where lifelong enemies are created.

The HR Wannabe said...

Friendship as a manager really isn't a great plan, but it's one thing to say, 'don't do it,' and another to avoid it completely. For example, what happens when you become the boss? Perhaps you were friends with your corworkers before, and now you're the boss- how do you navigate that little maze?

I agree, it is certainly better as a boss to be 'friendly' but not friends. Tricky to manage, though.

Lindsay said...

There are definitely exceptions to this--including my current workplace. We all live where we work, and when we don't have students, and all the staff is above 21, we definitely let loose, supervisors and supervisees. Would I do that with the executive director, who does not live on campus like the rest of us? Absolutely not. But with my current supervisor, the ability to relate to one another as humans and leave our work relationship down at work is one thing that creates loyalty and trust in the man.

jim said...

Hi Dan,
I think you're bang on about this. In the 30 years i've been doing this work, the manager-employee friendship thing has resulted in a lot of costly organizational turbulence.
The manager-employee friendship dynamics float in the messy realm of office affairs.
dr jim sellner, PhD.,DipC.

Julio said...

Hi Dan,
A manager should have his/her own space as well as employees. One thing is the labor aspect and another amicable relationship. A manager may not blend both aspects because by doing so could affect in any fashion the firm performance.
I had various experiences about that. One of them, when I provided a feedback for an employee, who was and still follow my friend, he had no good acceptance regarding my comments about him. Afterwards several weeks, he understood that I had the reason, but the issue was that we did not have a good labor relationship by these weeks; so that, this affected to our company too.

Anthony said...

I would agree with you on this one. I love my boss and get along with both of them very well but being true friends is pushing the boundaries. They are great to hang out with outside of work but at the end of the day everyone needs to have their own space and lives. I have always created a division between work and personal life and this just emphasizes the need to do it.

Paul Nicholas said...

Interesting views of an age-old question.
Perhaps part of our difficulty is that most of us work with words as if they have fixed and precisely defined meanings - but they don't - they are inherently ambiguous and "fuzzy". And the fuzzy word here is "friend". In those very rare relationships we could describe as "true friendships" each party will feel and act with appropriate harmony, balance and congruence of esteem and interest. And that doesn't describe many manager-employee friendships I've known! True friendships happen at work, but they are always between individuals who feel and behave as equals. Being friendly is desirable - being friends is not.

Anonymous said...

Truer words were never spoken. I whole-heartedly agree with Dan on this point.

Dan McCarthy said...

Spunyarn –
One practical guideline for a new boss now supervising his/her buddies? Well, I thought I did….don’t go out and get drunk with your employees.
Seriously, I realize when you get promoted from within its not easy. The reality is, the relationship between you and this particular group of friends has to change. You’re going to have to sit down with each of these friends and explain that to them. They can’t expect special treatment, and you don’t expect it from them. There will be times when you may have to give them bad news or take actions that they are not going to be too happy about. There may be times that they don’t like you, but you’ll do your best to earn their respect. While it’s still OK to socialize outside of work, you have to remember that you are still their boss – you are no longer “one of the gang”.
Managers should explain these expectations to potential new managers, so they have the opportunity to say “no, it’s not for me. I’d rather maintain my relationship with my friends, I can’t be their boss”. You can’t have it both ways.

Michael –
Well said. Those are great guidelines.

HR Wannabe –
I totally agree, it’s NOT easy. Again, better to know the deal before you accept the offer, and then have frank conversations with your new employees regarding boundaries, expectations, how things will need to be different, etc…

Lindsey –
Thanks, I appreciate your perspective. There are always expections, but I’m not sure I understand your example (living together). I still think the same potential pitfalls exist with camp counselors, RAs, sergeants, group home directors, or any position where your manage others, cohabitating or not.

Jim –
Thanks. I wonder if the differences in opinion come from experience? I think a lot of managers make 80% of their mistakes in their first 5 years. I sure did.

Julio –
Thanks, sounds like you learned what it’s like to have your feedback taken personally by a friend.

Anthony –
Thanks. I have to think most employees would agree with you.

Paul –
Great point. I had the same thought when I looked up the definition, but you did a better job defining “true friendship”.

audreygeddes said...

I agree with a lot of your points, especially in regards to creating a perception of favoritism. It is one thing to be friendly, but becoming friends can cross over boundary lines of how we perceive and respect authority. My wise boss has enlisted the help of business consultant, Kathleen Ranahan, who has helped us develop some excellent teambuilding strategies, which I highly recommend. This has helped our company tremendously and we have not had a lot off personnel issues as a result.

David said...

Dear Mr. McCarthy,

Sorry but I deeply disagree with your perspective on this subject. I consider the post has been written under great deterministic theories.

Employee as opposed to manager. Friend as opposed to manager / employee.

Almost everybody is, at the same time, friend, employee and manager. For me, the point is measure and moderation. Personal / social / professional relations are lived differently by each one of us. From my point of view, the correlation to business behaviour is not direct.

I appreciate your points of view, always enriching.

Dan McCarthy said...

Audrey -
Thanks, teambuilding would be one way to help to openly clarify roles and relationships.

David –
Thanks for your comment. I have to admit, I had to look up the word “deterministic”. It didn’t help much, but I think it means something like cause and effect. What you’ve stated makes sense to me, so I’m not sure where the disagreement is.

Chris Young said...

Great post Dan! I like that you recognize that manager / employee relationships can blur the line of friendship, but know where to draw that line.

I have included your post in my Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (http://www.maximizepossibility.com/employee_retention/2011/03/the-rainmaker-fab-five-blog-picks-of-the-week-3.html) to share your thoughts with my readers.

Be well!

Dan McCarthy said...

Chris -
Thanks, I'm honored!

Anonymous said...

Make sure the boss is paid a boat load more then the rest of the team...no friends then.

Meng said...

Well, I really thought the bosses should be the friends with their employees, which is helpful to create a friendly working environment. Personally, I prefer to be friend with everyone equally in my team if I was the boss.

Dan McCarthy said...

Anon -
lol!

Meng -
Thanks. What if you have an employee who doesn't want to be your friend?

Alan VW said...

In my experience the 'friend-boss' issue comes up on 2 occasions: when the boss is close to the age of his/her employees; and when the boss is so totally wrapped up in the job that he/she has no life outside of the work environment. Its tough to act as a superior when you're a same-age peer, but it must be done if the boss wants to maintain a professional workplace. And when the boss has no outside life from the workplace, his/her life is out of balance and must be corrected by forcing him/herself to generate outisde activities/interests. Its simply a question of mental health - you go to extreme readctions when the WORK is EVERYTHING! There's dedication, but there's balance too.

Dan McCarthy said...

Alan -
I know what you mean. And for managers in those situations, it's so hard for them to see why it can be a problem.

Doug said...

Good discussion. Corollary question: How about hiring a "friend in need?" With the economy still in recovery mode, there are many thousands of long-term unemployed out there, good people and very competent professionals. Say a friend of yours fits into this category and you have an opening in your firm where the fit wld make some or a lot of sense, and in essence serve as a "port in the storm" for your friend. Hire or don't hire? Wld be interested in your and readers' thoughts.

Dan McCarthy said...

Doug -
Wow, good question. I would try to get him/her a job, but not working directly for me. That would be weird, managing a friend, and I'd be afraid it could ruin the friendship.I'd be interested in other's thoughts on this one too.

Leader, not manager said...

Guys and gals, I'm 23 right now and I manage 5 employees. I've tried so hard to be their 'friends' because I believe that as friends, they will be motivated to be more productive. It backfired. They started becoming more familiar and took things less seriously. As leaders, I reckon the most we can become is a 'friendly mentor'. The thing is, what made me do this in the first place was Richard Branson. I look at him and see that his employees are like friends. And because I have slight OCD, I kept trying. So my question is, do you think Richard Branson treats employees as friends? Or more logically, he treats them in a friendly way, but arent true friends...?

Dan McCarthy said...

Leader -
Good for you for being willing and able to learn from your experience. I agree with your conclusion 100%. I'm afraid I don't know much about Sir Branson, other than he seems to be willing to be different and he's been very successful in doing do.
It would be interesting to know what his employees/friends think.

Anonymous said...

Dan,
Enjoyed your post as we (within my organization) have just gone through having a very close friend and colleague jump to the executive ranks and all of a sudden he's not too sure how to talk to us because he's no longer a colleague but an executive boss. The transition has been quite interesting to see; sad in many ways because we have in a sense lost a good friend but good for the organization in the long run.

Anonymous said...

I was friends with someone I worked with and I unfortunatley I only have one other friend but it is very hard to be friends when your boss is talking to you about what your work friend has done wrong over and over again and when they don't understand that what they do affects you at work and for a Manager, worries you out of work too. It upsets me quite a bit as because I'm always a bit upset over my "lack of friends" and we did have some fund times, but I think that is just one of the annoying parts of the job.

Dan McCarthy said...

Anon#1-
That's too bad! I'll bet it's hard for your friend.

Anon#2-
Sounds like an unprofessional manager! Hang in there.

Doug Crandall said...

Dan,
Great site. I found it via Marcus Buckingham -- so congrats on his praise and publicity. I am a new fan.

However, couldn't agree less with this particular post. I challenge it for two reasons. 1) It's overly prescriptive in the sense how friendly you decide to be with direct reports is a call based on who you are and how you choose to lead. As I read almost all of the compelling and up-to-date research on effective leadership, the key word is authenticity -- based on your experiences, values, and who you want to be. Friendships may not be best for you or others. They work well for me. 2) I've seen the power of friendships in boss-report relationships have compelling, life-changing results. I co-wrote a book called "Hope Unseen" with Captain Scotty Smiley. When Scotty lost his eyesight in Iraq, his company commander and one of his best friends fell to the ground in the aid station and started crying...the power of his friendship was on display for a company full of soldiers. That army major is now a special operator on the front lines of the war on terror -- and he's as tough as they come. His friendship has been life-changing for Scotty. In the book, he described his "love" for Scotty. He then gave up his two-week R&R leave to be by Scotty's side at Walter Reed.

And in my experience as a leader and leader developer -- if HR says you shouldn't, then as a leader, you probably should. :)

Dan McCarthy said...

Doug -
Thanks and welcome, I'm glad you found Great Leadership and hope you enjoy it.
As you can see by the comments, the opinions on the topic of “boss as friend” vary. Unlike a lot of my posts, which do offer more prescriptive “how tos”, this one is more of an opinion. It’s an opinion based on my own experience, talking to other managers, and what I’ve read on the topic. I hope you, and others, don’t see my advice as the conventional “HR said to do it” advice. While I have a lot of respect for HR pros, I’ll often give advice and opinions that I’m sure go against the HR grain. That’s probably why I was a lousy HR manager. (-:
It sounds like your experience has been different than mine, and I love your credentials and example, so more power to you. The only thing I might question is when a manager tells me “well, it works for me” I wonder how well it’s really working for their employees.
Sounds like an awesome book – I wish you all the best!

Anonymous said...

This was inspiring, thank you. I have a manager that I fortunately or unfortunately consider a friend. I do take things personal from time to time, even though I'm aware of the law of keeping business separate from personal. Sadly though...we are all human and human nature 101 is to build relationships with one another. To prove this, I am about a half a year away from looking for another job because I can't handle the feelings that my manager doesn't care for me the way I do for her. Friendships are hard to come by, and when you genuinely care for a friend, you should protect the relationship. It's sad to say, I love my job as most of the employees do, but I don't care for it so much that i would lose someone that i consider to be a friend. Thus, weighing my opportunity and marginal coats, keeping this person in my life as a friend is more important than the sad little bit of money I can make there and numerous other places.....even while unemployment is high and job opportunities are low.

Tech Support said...

the employees an the boss are two separate things and should not consider each other "pals" or "buds"

Fred
Tech Support

Sticker Printing said...

Having your boss as your friend and being friends with your employees can make your working environment more pleasant. With established boundaries and expectations, both working and personal relationships can continue to thrive and grow. It is only when unrealistic expectations arise that one or the other of the relationships suffers.

Anonymous said...

I found this a bit late but very interesting post. My supervisor whom I work directly with became my friend with whom we both shared confidences with. Now this person is the office manager and does the reviews/evaluations etc. Things I have complained about in our conversations are now coming back to haunt me. I need to break off our friendship but we are the only two women in the office so there would be no one to confide or talk to. But I don't think either of us can be unbiased even tho the now "boss" believes she can. I am stuck and feel like I need to transfer to a different office.

Anonymous said...

This article is right on. Unfortunately, I have become friends with a couple of my employees and at tim where you have to discipline it does become hard and they feel as if they can loudly complain back. This has made me feel disrespected as a manager, however, as a friend I understand. It is difficult and a situation that I need to remedy.

Anonymous said...

Good article. I concur with it. I've often told my subordinates flat out that I am their leader first and foremost. I will be friendly and congenial but don't ever think that will hamper my ability to do the right thing always. Whether you feel friendly to one of your subordinates or not, you must always have the discipline to keep them at arm's length. If you DON'T feel friendly to a subordinate, it would be wise to try to talk to that person and be friendly with them too...though you may not feel like it. Perceptions dictate all of our realities and appearances must be managed. A perception of favoritism will only undermine your own leadership ability with your people.

kara lynn said...

I agree to a certain extent with this article. I am from a very small town in which, if one were to not be friends with bosses and/or coworkers we'd have no friends. I believe mature adults can be close friends and still respect the professionalism line. If my boss, a good friend, were to give me a poor review then I would know it's because I deserved it and would not take it personally. It's not anyone's fault if my work ability/ethic is poor, it's mine. I believe any mature person could make the same conclusion. However, dating a boss would not be a favored idea, nor would be dating a landlord for much the same reasons. If said relationship were to end poorly not only would one be out a boyfriend or girlfriend but now stuck in an potentially awkward environment. However, friends don't put that much emotion or stress on their relationships, if they did then they wouldn't be "true friends" anyways and then the point wouldn't be valid. I am good friends with my boss and am a boss myself with employee and am friends with many of them, but I don't let it interfere with my professionalism. Often I've had employees question my treatment for them and after I explain why I did something we've never had a problem and/or hurt feelings. Often I have noticed that employees questioning my motives has lead to their improved performance because they realized the problem was their poor work performance and not favoritism. My town is so small that no one would have any friends if we didn't have them at work as well. Business and pleasure have gone hand in hand since the birth of man, not always happy but on occasion has produced, when with out friendship it would not have, extreme success and happiness.
So, in conclusion, I would say that friendship in the work place is only restricted by the individual. Some are amazing and some are simply not feasible. No one is friends with everyone. :)

Nikhil Pattani said...

Hey... Thanks for such a thoughtful article... i felt just not friendly but emotinally attavhed yo my subordinate/s.
I feel something going on drasticallly wrong and was searching internet for answers...
Trust me your article brought a lil insight on the subject i have reecently been working on .
Work execution is affected and also my behavioural pattern has become that of an emotinal friend looking for a company rather than being a boss...
I will try to change my behaviour right from.tomorrow and will think positive about self and the company.

Anonymous said...

I have a supervisor with whom I am friendly with at work and she is friendly with me. She has been my direct supervisor but is no longer. I have hung out with her briefly outside of work. She has maintained her professionalism and does not play favorites at work. Her statement is, "I may be your friend but work as work and I will not treat my friends any different then any one of my other employees."