Why You Shouldn’t ‘Friend’ Your Employees

Strike a balance between the personal and professional

Managing employees isn’t easy, especially when the ink may still be drying on your promotion, but striking just the right interpersonal chord with your staff is crucial for both your fulfillment and theirs.

You want your employees to like you, but also respect you. You want to stand with them, but also have them know where you stand. Yet, the line between boss and buddy can sometimes be hard to detect.

“It’s not uncommon for many new supervisors to cross the line in either direction—they can become too friendly and then can’t discipline, or they can become too strong of an authority figure and turn staff off,” explains executive coach and management consultant Kathi Elster, co-author of Working With You Is Killing Me.

So, how do you foster an honest, trusting relationship with your staff when you’re the one handling their performance evaluations?

Below, workplace experts offer tips that can put you in the best position to both supervise and support your crew.

1. Remember Who’s The Boss

Keep in mind that, in the workplace, it’s more important to be a boss than to be a friend. Being too friendly can jeopardize your authority.

“Attempting to be friends with your employees makes providing feedback and performance appraisals difficult and puts you at risk for claims of favoritism,” says Devora Zack, CEO of Only Connect Consulting, Inc. and author of Managing for People Who Hate Managing.

“Your team needs a leader, not a buddy,” she says. “In the end, they’ll like you more when you focus less on being liked and more on offering guidance and support.”

Suppressing that natural need to be liked is key, says corporate consultant Carlann Fergusson, founder of Propel Forward LLC.

“The trap of wanting to be liked is an easy one for all new supervisors to fall into—and I fell into it myself,” she says.

“But remember that caring is different from wanting to be liked. Caring is non-conditional and applies to every employee.

This will enable the leader to course-correct employees for the good of the team and the company, without letting personal concerns get in the way.”

2. Know Your People

Not needing to be liked doesn’t mean you need to be unlikeable. You can keep your boss hat on and still take your employees to lunch once in a while, or ask how their weekend was.

In fact, getting to know your employees on a personal level—while not getting too personal—has advantages.

Deb Hornell, president of the Chicago-based workplace consultancy Hornell Partners, says a manager needs to “spend time with staff—get to know them and uncover their talents and motivations.”

Author and business consultant Bob Papes says you should put effort into relating with your employees. “Taking an interest is more than just saying good morning.

It’s knowing important things like their birthday, when their child is graduating, sending a sympathy card for a death in the family or, better yet, going to the wake or funeral,” he says.

“This says to the employees you generally care about them as people and not just as employees.”

Still, Papes cautions, know what lines not to cross. “You shouldn’t go out with them and party unless it’s a company event. If you become a personal friend to some of them, it may seriously erode your status as a fair manager or supervisor.”

3. Don’t “Friend” Your Employees

Elster advises managers to “Think ‘friendly,’ not ‘friends.'” But does that include Facebook friends? Though it may seem safe, forming social network attachments with your employees is probably a bad idea.

“Although the requests continue to come in, I try not to accept friend requests from my employees,” says Ayo Hart, founder and managing partner of Dolphin Organics.

“I don’t feel it’s appropriate to see everything going on with my employees, and definitely don’t want the window to my personal world opened to them. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and I know what’s at risk.”

4. Stay Professional, Not Personal

Anything you wouldn’t reveal online should be off limits in person, as well. “Don’t use your staff to discuss your problems—personal or professional,” says Elster. “And never lose your cool in front of them—they’ll only fear you.”

Donna Flagg, a workplace communications expert and the author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations, agrees with the need to keep things professional.

“Don’t spend office time kibitzing about social life; know what’s appropriate for the environment you’re in,” she says. “‘How was your weekend’ is fine, but locking yourself in a conference room to debrief on a break-up, date or whatever is not. This goes for both parties.”

That discretion applies even more when it comes to sensitive corporate information. “Don’t discuss confidential company information under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter how close you are,” says Flagg. “This is where a clear line must remain intact.”

5. Make Clear and Consistent Decisions

Asserting your role as manager means you need to make clear decisions on a consistent basis and communicate them effectively.

“Be open to ideas but be clear that you will make the final decision. When you do, explain why you made that choice.” says Michelle Tillis Lederman, president of Executive Essentials and author of The 11 Laws of Likeability.

“Keeping the employee in the loop goes a long way to job satisfaction and also shows that you listened and had reasons for making the decision.”

“Over-communicate what you want and need from them,” says Elster. “Always consider their point of view when it comes time to give tough feedback and be prepared to hear what they have to say.”

6. Manage Your Friends as You Do Everyone Else

You already know it’s wrong to play favorites with your friends but, Flagg says, “you don’t have to make apologies for your friendships” either.

“As long as you’re professional and fair, people will come to understand that the friendship is irrelevant in the context of work,” she says.

Just remember that when you’re with these friends amongst other employees—whether at the office or outside—you should give them the same time and attention you give anyone else who reports to you.

Laurie Leiker, freelance corporate trainer and author of Motivating Feedback: Getting the Best from Employees without Tears says that it’s okay to acknowledge friendships, but know where the lines are drawn.

“Your friend will have to understand your responsibility is to the company first, and friends second, if a conflict arises between the two,” she says.

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