For the love of your business

Friends With Benefits: Navigating Employer-Employee Friendships—Part 1

Setting Boundaries / Sticky Situations / Unexpected Business Risks

Because we spend so much of our lives working, it’s practically guaranteed that you’re going to develop close bonds with your employees. And this is a good thing. Having a friendly relationship with your team members based on mutual respect, care, and concern can make the job more enjoyable for everyone—and even boost performance and productivity.

But there’s a huge difference between being friendly with your employees and developing a genuine friendship. When it comes to things like spending lots of time together outside of work, introducing them to your family, and sharing intimate details about your life with one another, that’s a whole different ball game.

Indeed, these relationships can be so challenging that many people—both bosses and employees alike—will tell you that such friendships simply aren’t possible. And more will tell you that while they may be possible, they’re not worth the potential risks.

Since real friendship involves such deep aspects of human nature—emotional stability, power dynamics, and personal integrity—whether true employer-employee friendships are possible really depends on the individuals involved. But regardless of who we’re talking about, these friendships are sure to test your ability to maintain strong boundaries like almost nothing else.

If you’re considering developing a genuine friendship with any of your employees, you may want to proceed with caution and first consider the following seven issues.

1. Can you handle the relationship?
One uncomfortable fact of employer-employee friendships is that not everyone can handle them. This goes for both you and the employee. It takes an incredible level of self-awareness, honesty, and emotional maturity to make any friendship work, even without the added complication of doing business together.

You’ll first need to be brutally honest with yourself. If you have any self-esteem issues, problems with boundaries, or find that your judgment is easily clouded by emotion, you may want to keep things purely professional. For example, would you be comfortable firing your best friend? Could you remain truly impartial when deciding whether to promote your friend versus another employee? Could you give your friend honest feedback in areas that he or she needs to grow?

If those questions gave you any pause at all, that’s a red flag that you might not be ready.

2. Can they handle the relationship?
The person you befriend should possess the same stable character traits as well. Indeed, given the power imbalance, he or she might need to be even more mature than you.

Since you can’t gauge the full range of someone’s personality right away, consider taking the friendship slowly and get to know one another on a professional level first. If the potential friend has a habit of being overly sensitive about criticism, seems emotionally needy, or likes to gossip, it may be best to steer clear.

3. Establish ground rules
With so many potential pitfalls surrounding friendship, it’s essential to establish clear ground rules right off the bat. Some people find it’s easiest to simply not talk about work outside the office at all, keeping the professional and personal aspects of the relationship totally separate.

That said, it’s inevitable that work-related issues will come up at some point, so you might want to  clearly note that some topics must be off limits. Obviously, all matters related to compensation—pay, raises, promotions, bonuses, performance reviews—should be a no go.

The same goes for talking about other employees or colleagues. Such gossip hinders your ability to remain an impartial leader, and at the same time, it can jeopardize the employee’s ability to effectively work with colleagues. Depending on your operation, you should carefully consider exactly what things you should and should not share, always erring on the side of caution.

Don’t be surprised if laying things out in such a frank matter scares a few people off from developing a true friendship. But that just means they probably weren’t in it for the right reasons in the first place.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on navigating employer-employee friendships

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