Colleague or friend? Boss or buddy? This question often pops up in discussions about best practices for organizations. Should you be friends with your fellow employees?
The answer to this question is a teeth-gritting “maybe.” Work is filled with people, and people need relationships. But work isn’t just about getting along. It’s mostly about getting things done.
This is a frequent topic of discussion in the popular press. A Businessweek op-ed piece quotes one expert:
Angie Herbers, a professional HR consultant, told me not to worry, that being friends with a higher-up isn’t that big of a deal. “I actually encourage friendships between bosses and their employees,” she said. “People like to work with people they like, and if you can develop a friendship with your boss, you’ll want to be more productive. You’ll want to worker harder, and you’ll probably want to stay at the company.”
But on the opposite side, an article from Inc Magazine lists seven reasons against being friends with employees. These include:
They won’t take you seriously. As a boss, your final decisions must be respected. Your friend-employees may roll their eyes at ideas they don’t agree with.
It’s not fair. When it’s time to promote, assign bonuses, and grant growth opportunities, you may find it difficult to separate your personal feelings from professional observations.
It’s hard to fire a friend. Your friend…was probably well suited to the job when you launched the company, but now you need a higher level of skill and creativity. What do you do?
That’s not all. If you’re interested in a scientific perspective, Lynn Taylor for Psychology Today. She advises:
The safest bet is to be friendly with everyone, but not necessarily hangout buddies with your boss, or even co-workers.
So what’s the right answer? I’ve written about workplace favoritism and friendships previously here on The Methodology Blog. And as before, it’s hard to disagree with any of these points. But let’s talk about the purpose of a boss and the purpose of a friend:
- The reason we have friends is so that we can have meaningful relationships in our lives. Friends support us, listen to us, and help us when we are in need.
- The reason we have colleagues, however, is quite different. The diversity of skills and the organization of decision-making into a system of responsibility is intended to produce financial value for customers.
Is it okay for a colleague to be a friend? Yes, when these two factors are in alignment. But what about when they aren’t?
For example, if an employee is sick and asks for a ride to the doctor’s office, should you take them yourself or call a cab? Your answer requires deciding what’s more important: the results you provide for the company, or the personal relationship with the colleague.
This is not an easy question to answer, but here’s one fact to remember: jobs are temporary, but friends are forever. One is more likely to be forgiving when you can’t be there. The other needs you to produce results to keep the institution moving forward.
Here are some tips for making the best decision:
When people join your organization, describe the culture. Do you consider yourselves a team or a family? Do people hang out after work, or do they focus on getting their work done and socialize elsewhere? Tell people what to expect, rather than just letting them figure it out.
Use examples in training. If your company has an employee assistance program, describe sample cases in which it should be used instead of talking to your boss.
Reinforce the importance of results. We all get along better with some people than others. Remind your team that what matters most is not playing favorites, but generating value.
Good luck on deciding where to draw the line for yourself and your business. It’s not easy to decide whether you can be colleagues, friends, or both.