Can you be friends with your employees?

There are a ton of studies that suggest employees do better when they’re working with friends. But can their manager (or boss) be one of those friends? As a boss, can you, and should you, be friends with your employees?

One of the first challenges a new manager faces is the new relationship they have with the employees that report to them. Should they befriend them? Hang out with them outside of work? Connect on social media accounts like Facebook? All of which can be summarized by the simple question: can you be friends with your employees?

friends with your employees

Maybe the first thing we have to get straight is that there’s a significant difference between employees being friends with you, and you being friends with them. There is, regardless of whether you like it or not, a power imbalance. You can fire them and they can’t do the same to you (without gathering everyone together and staging a coup).

It’s an asymmetrical relationship

We once hosted the annual Christmas party at our home for my wife’s school. She was a teacher there and our home was a few blocks away from the school. My wife wasn’t in a leadership role at all, so it was simply a proximity thing – and we were thrilled to host the party. The night of the event, some people had way too much to drink. One teacher in particular decided to aggressively dance (“grind”) with her boss (the principal) – without realizing that she’d barely remember it the next day and he hadn’t had a single thing to drink.

There’s just no way that story ends well.

When we’re talking about friendship, we normally mean things like:

  • Going out to dinner or getting together for drinks
  • Going on vacation with each other
  • Inviting friends over for a BBQ
  • Helping friends move

As a manager, we look at those things and might say, “I have no trouble inviting an employee to dinner, on vacation, over for a BBQ or to help me move.” But the same isn’t necessarily true for a person that works for you. A request from you to help them move may feel career ending (if they say they can’t make it). Having too many drinks at dinner may feel career ending (the next morning).

The first think you have to acknowledge is the asymmetrical nature of the relationship.

This is why people say you can’t be friends with your employees

Because of this asymmetrical dynamic, most people will simply suggest that you not befriend your employees.

Every one of them is right. All of these things are real challenges. But there’s more to the story…

Employees are more engaged when working with friends

Here’s what we know – from more than one study. Employees are more engaged when they can say they have a friend at work. If they have six to twenty-five friends at work, sixty percent of those surveyed said they loved their companies.

A Globoforce study reveals that having friends at work increases an employee’s commitment to your company. And a Wharton professor found that managers who create a culture of “affectionate and compassion care” for their employees can see remarkable results in team cohesion and performance.

In one of my earliest moments as a manager I managed a group of workers at a camp where the staffing was based on the camp’s enrollment. There was to be one leader for every ten children. On a particular Monday morning, I discovered that the camp census was low – so low that I’d have to ask two leaders to not work that week (and not get paid). One leader immediately offered to take a week without pay because they could afford it, and still asked if they could hang around and help. Another suggested that the entire team take a small cut so that no one else had to be sent home.

I can’t take credit for it, but I learned the lesson immediately. Team cohesion is powerful.

So where does that leave the manager?

Maybe the term “friendship” is too loaded. Let’s look at it another way.

A manager’s relational responsibilities for their team include:

  1. Creating a healthy and positive environment for everyone
  2. Learning to listen and keep the confidences of their staff
  3. Being compassionate when an employee is going thru hard times
  4. Helping their team develop strong relationships with each other
  5. Helping every employee understand their own strengths and gifts
  6. Helping everyone understand how to best communicate with each other

If you get these six things right, I believe the people working for you will not only develop strong bonds with each other, but they’ll come to enjoy and respect you – which comes in handy when you have to do the other parts of your job that may not be relational in nature.

But is that friendship?

I think the answer is that it’s “friendly.”

And when you mix being friendly with mutual respect, then you’ll notice that friendship does blossom with some. And not with others. Which is ok.

It may be personalities, or interests, but you’ll find that friendship is easier with some than others, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you’re professional with all, and friendly with all, and end up with a few friendships on top of that, I call that winning.

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