Can You Really Be Friends with Your Employees?

Jenna SpinelleCompany Culture and Environment, Employee Engagement, Personality

Two adults drinking coffee standing outside talking.

Camaraderie in the workplace is a great thing. It helps people feel a human connection at work and even increases productivity. However, it is possible to cross the line and veer into territory that’s inappropriate — which can wreak havoc on your reputation and your company culture.

The answer to the question of whether you can be friends with your employees depends on the specific situation and that person’s emotional qualities. But, there are a few rules of thumb that can help you figure out whether this path is worth taking:

Defining Friendship

Friendship means different things to different people. The first step in deciding whether you can be friends with an employee is determining what friendship means to you. Is it getting lunch once a month? Going out for a weekly happy hour? Hanging out with each other’s spouses and families?

Again, the answer here will depend on the situation, but it’s important to consider where you want to start the friendship and how far you want things to go. Setting those boundaries now and determining what type of supervisor you want to be will help avoid unpleasant situations own the road.

Maybe your employee friendship has already started and you don’t even realize it. Most adult friendships evolve organically — as opposed to the childhood days of asking “will you be my friend?”

Take stock of where you are and where you want to be, and don’t be afraid to let things continue evolving organically. A friendship does not need to have status meetings or progress reports; you can take things as they come as long as you’ve defined the parameters.

Consider the Power Dynamic

The supervisor/supervisee power dynamic does not go away the minute you walk out of the office door to get lunch or grab a drink. Some employees, particularly those who have a work personality motivated by a desire to get ahead, might still be eager to impress you and win you over as a means to receiving a promotion or increased responsibility.

On the other end of the spectrum, they might be afraid to open up and say what they really think out of fear for getting on your bad side. Remember that a little disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing. Seeing another person’s point of view, particularly if it’s someone you respect, can give you insight into your own opinions and attitudes.

If You Take the Plunge

Ok, so you decide that you are going to transition a working relationship into a friendship. No matter where things go, respect the boundaries you established and don’t do anything that would compromise your work relationship.

As you may know, it will seem very tempting to turn your conversations into complaint sessions about whatever is going wrong at the office. Giving in to this temptation sets a bad example, not only for your employee/friend but for the rest of your team.

The people who work for you need to know that they can come to you in confidence without fear of being talked about outside the office. You also do not want to be seen as the type of manager who plays favorites with team members — your employee retention will suffer as a result.

Try to keep the conversation away from work whenever possible. Instead, use your time together as an opportunity to learn more about each other as people or catch up on the latest sports or pop culture. As with any friendship, the conversation will flow more smoothly over time.