How to be Friends With Employees Without Crossing the Line

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Rewind a decade and HR professionals would cringe at the thought of the boss being friends with his or her employees. After all, how would he or she be able to dole out orders if there wasn’t the boss/employee wall separating the two, was the common thinking. These days the boss/employee friendship is much more accepted in all types of companies, both big and small. The key to making it work, however, is knowing where to draw a line.

“There’s not much of a barrier now” when it comes to the boss having relationships with employees, says John Ricco, partner in recruiting firm The Atlantic Group. “It can be a double edge sword. You can be close to them but you don’t want to be overly close.”

In this era of job hopping and fierce competition for talent, there are benefits to having a friendship with employees. Not only can it build loyalty and boost morale, but it’s almost inevitable since we spend more time at work then we do at home with our families.  “Having a friendly rapport can drive a positive and open corporate culture, and increase morale, productivity, and overall job satisfaction,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at recruiting firm Robert Half International. “It’s helpful for managers and employees to know a bit about each other on an individual level.”

Just like there are pros to being friends with your employees, there’s also a downside if the relationship isn’t managed. Managers have to be mindful of getting too close to one of his or her reports because it can make it hard to give out orders or worse appear inappropriate or unfair to the other employees in the office. That’s why experts say bosses have to set boundaries and stick to them. Yes it’s ok to go out for one or two drinks with staff after work but it’s not a good idea to stay out until 2:00 a.m. downing shots. “If you feel like you are getting too close and it’s awkward to give instructions you may want to take a step back,” says Ricco. Instead of being their drinking buddy, he says to use the friendship as a way to mentor staffers.

According to McDonald the boss has to make sure he or she is still in control of the relationship. For instance can he or she still make tough decisions, give constructive feedback, keep sensitive information confidential, be objective and get the team to rally behind him or her?  “For leaders to be effective, they must gain and maintain the respect of the team,” he says.

Even a well-managed friendship can have some bumps along the road. For Chris Hobart, CEO and Founder of Hobart Financial Group, he did an about face when he realized the boss as a friend mentality wasn’t working for him or his business. “What I found is as much as I want to look at people as friends the reality is they always looked at me as the boss,” says Hobart. “There has to be that defined line. Too often if you get friendly favors can be called in or expectations are going to be made. It can create a situation where other employees see it as favoritism.” Hobart says it’s ok to chat with employees and to ask about their family and weekend but beyond that he draws the line. “It’s good to care and it’s important to show you are interested in who they are and what they are becoming as an employee and person,” says Hobart. “It doesn’t mean you need to saddle up next to them on a barstool and become best buddies. That relationship becomes dangerous.”

Forging friendships with employees, albeit managed ones, can have its benefits, but one thing career experts agree bosses should avoid at all costs is becoming friends on their employees’ social networks. “People might not give it a second thought to friend their manager or their employees on Facebook. But in doing so you can open up your personal life to your professional and business contacts,” says McDonald.

According to a 2013 Robert Half survey six in 10 managers said they were uncomfortable being friended by their bosses or they employees they oversee. What’s more nearly half of survey respondents said they preferred to not connect with coworkers on Facebook, compared to 41% in 2009.  “You may wish to keep your LinkedIn and Twitter feeds reserved for business connections and activity, and use Facebook for interaction with friends and family,” says McDonald. “Just one inappropriate post or photo could torpedo your professional reputation, so always be mindful of your social media activity and privacy settings.”

Author:  Donna Fuscaldo

Freelance journalist. @donnabail

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