Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.
By Donna Rosato
January 26, 2015

Q: Should a boss be friends with his or her employees?

A: Treating employees like pals didn’t always work out for Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott character on The Office, but you can be friends with people who work for you—if you set boundaries.

“When you’re working side-by-side, day after day with people, it’s perfectly natural for friendships to develop,” says Brian Fielkow, a CEO of a Houston logistics company and author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence By Creating A Vibrant Culture. “Some people believe work and your personal life should be separate. But most people don’t want to just punch a clock every day.”

Indeed, there’s lots of research that shows that having work friends is good for business. People with office buddies tend to be happier, more productive, and less likely to quit. Even workers who aren’t thrilled with the job itself are happier when they have friends at work because it gives them someone to vent to and reduces stress, according to Michael Sollitto, assistant professor of communication at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and author of a recent study on workplace relationships.

But the rules are different when the relationship is between people on different rungs of the corporate ladder. “Friendships with subordinates can be dangerous for your career and for the workers who are your friends,” says Fielkow.

If you’re going out to lunch, grabbing drinks after work, or playing golf with people who report to you, perceptions of an uneven playing field can fester. “Employees who aren’t part of that clique may start to feel like your chummy pals have better access to you than the rest of the team and are more likely to receive special treatment,” says Fielkow. People may not respect you if you play favorites.

Your friendship with a subordinate can also color co-workers’ feelings toward that person. If your friend gets a promotion or a big raise, it might be chalked up to your relationship, not his or her merits.

Plus, workplace friendships can make it harder for you to do your job. “It may be difficult to be critical of a friend you manage,” says Fielkow. “What if you have to lay to lay them off?” And if the friendship goes sour, that worker could undermine you by sharing intimate details about your life.

None if this means you can’t develop close relationships at work. If a friendship with a colleague grows, agree on boundaries. Don’t talk about other workers or business issues when you’re outside the office. Don’t share company information before it becomes public knowledge.

And make sure that you’re equally accessible to all members of your team. Communicate regularly with people who report to you. Walk around the office. A simple “how was your weekend” at the water cooler can go a long way toward making you approachable. “Showing a personal interest in your employees’ lives can help you be a better manager and create an atmosphere where people get more out of work than work,” says Fielkow.

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