To be (friends with your employees), or not to be (friends with your employees). That is the question.
It’s not exactly the drama Shakespeare might’ve had in mind, but it’s a dilemma today’s leaders deal with all the time. Whatever you decide, it’s worth careful consideration since the decision can impact your day-to-day work life. And if you choose to go down the friendship route, it’s difficult to backtrack.
Our opinion? Bosses shouldn’t be close friends with their employees. It just creates too many complications. But that doesn’t mean leaders can’t build friendly personal connections with team members or socialize outside of work.
There’s a difference between being friends and creating personal rapport. Sometimes it’s a fine line, and it can be slightly different from person to person.
The key: set intentional boundaries and stick to them.
The benefits of socializing and building a connection with employees
We’d say that it’s good to create rapport with your employees, and it’s okay to plan social get-togethers outside of work (Again, as long as you know where the boundary is. See below for some tips for navigating that line).
In fact, building a personal relationship with one’s boss seems to be pretty common, especially in certain industries. In a survey of 3,000 Americans, 34% of employees sought their boss’ advice on a personal issue, 28% called or texted a boss about something unrelated to work, and 24% hung out with a boss socially.
Here are some benefits of connecting with employees:
- Increased trust: It’s hard to trust someone you know nothing about. When you share some details of your personal life with your team, they’ll be more likely to trust you and vice versa. A lack of trust in the workplace creates feelings of instability, isolation, and fear.
- More open and authentic conversations about work: If there’s no connection built between you and your employees, you’ll probably have surface-level conversations with team members. This can really hinder your ability to assess the true status of projects and challenges occurring in real-time.
- Better team cohesion and collaboration: When you understand someone’s preferences, pet peeves, and work style, you can work with them more effectively. For example, if you know that one team member prefers to have more regular check-ins you can adjust to meet that need.
- A positive culture: If you can find appropriate ways to incorporate socializing, it’ll bring some lightness and humanity into work. After all, the workday can (and should!) have moments of fun.
- Reduced stress: When employees feel like they’re on a team grounded in mutual trust and respect, it can reduce tension or stress.
- Increased motivation and engagement: People who care about their colleagues are more motivated to support each other and less opt to let each other down. This increases engagement and helps prevent “quiet quitting.”
The flip side: problems with crossing too far into the friend zone
- Favoritism: Will you be tempted to treat the employees you’re closest to differently? Even the perception of favoritism is really detrimental and can lower morale.
- Hurts fairness: It can be hard to put aside your personal feelings about people when considering who to reward and who to challenge. This unconscious bias can foster unhealthy competition and leave some employees with the impression that they need to “suck up” to the boss in order to advance their careers.
- You or them could take work situations more personally: When our personal and work lives are intertwined, it can be difficult to separate the two. This is especially true when tough decisions need to be made, like with salary adjustments, role changes, or layoffs.
- Makes it harder to hold people accountable and give critical feedback: It can be hard to be totally honest with our friends, but bosses need to be be able to give improvement-based feedback and have difficult conversations with employees. Consider implementing a data-centric review system, which can remove some subjectivity.
- Can weaken your authority as the boss: When an employee views you as a friend, they may think they aren’t subject to the same standards or expectations as everyone else. Perhaps they begin showing up late or missing their deadlines – how would you handle this?
How do I know if socializing with my employees starts to cross the line?
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help gauge whether socializing with employees is getting into dicey territory:
- Are you socializing more with certain employees on your team over others? Is this causing you to favor particular team members, even unconsciously?
- How often are you socializing with staff? If it’s happening too often, this can start blurring lines too much between boss and friend
- Would you consider your work colleagues your main peeps or do you have friendships outside the workplace?
- Have any romantic feelings started to develop between you and a coworker as a result of socializing? If so, this can have a multitude of problematic implications that deserve thoughtful consideration in order to proactively avoid
- Have you shared personal information with employees that goes too deep into vulnerable feelings, past personal traumas, or family dynamics? The boundary between sharing and oversharing isn’t always clear, but it’s worth being aware of.
- Are you talking to employees about workplace politics or engaging in gossip? If so, that’ll create confusion about the line between boss and employee and foster negativity within the culture
- Are social events with employees creating situations where you or them are inclined to overindulge in alcoholic beverages? Although each person has to be responsible for regulating themselves, it’s important to think about whether aspects of the event itself (venue, setting, time of day, length of event) are creating too many risks. Plus, as a leader, you set the tone — what signals are you sending in terms of your interaction with alcohol when around employees?
What about connecting with my staff on social media? Is that ok?
In today’s culture, this is definitely something we all have to consider. The answer isn’t the same for every person, and can depend on various factors — Are you fairly reserved on social media? Or do you prefer to post the more intimate details of your life? How would it affect your opinion of someone to see them partying at a bar on a weeknight? Or sharing an Instagram story in the middle of the workday?
These are the questions everyone has to answer for themselves about social media use and that their employees.
Sample scenarios: Can managers hangout with employees outside of work?
- You’ve developed a close friendship with your employee, Brian. His performance at work is middle-of-the-road. It doesn’t cause problems but isn’t the best either. Meanwhile, another employee, Sarah, keeps her personal life private and you know very little about her. However, she outperforms the rest of her team members. Turns out, one of your employees will be laid off due to budget cuts – could you fairly analyze whether to let Sarah or Brian go?
- You and your staff hang out regularly on the weekends and after work. You all get along really well there’s never been any issues. However, one night there’s a confrontation with Ashley, who is both a friend and an employee. It’s serious and your relationship can’t be mended. The rest of the office feels pressure to take sides. Would you be able to maintain a professional work environment with Ashley?
- You accept a Facebook friend request from your employee, David. Down the road, you notice that he’s posting about controversial political issues that don’t align with your own beliefs. In fact, you find his posts kind of intimidating and upsetting. Could you continue working with David without letting political differences get in the way?
Note: The information in this article is offered as helpful input for leaders to consider but is not the same as advice from a lawyer or human resources professional and should not be construed as legal advice. We recommend you consult legal and/or HR professionals when considering actions or decisions related to sensitive employee matters.