Added by on 2012-10-09


It’s not always easy to know where to draw the line between being a friendly boss and being a “friend” in the workplace. In order to effectively lead, there must be a distinction between yourself and other employees. It is OK to be friendly as long as staff know you are still the boss. Here we outline a common query in small business and the possible solution.

Q: I’ve read many books on management and leadership, but I’m confused about where to draw the line on personal relationships with my employees. I think there should be a definite distinction between personal and professional relationships, especially with the opposite gender. By this I mean I wouldn’t engage in activities outside of work with an employee unless it was directly related to work. But one of my partners feels there shouldn’t be a line at all. What’s your advice?

A: I understand why you may feel that personal relationships at work aren’t a good thing. The Armed Services certainly feel that way, and there are many aphorisms that seem to make the case. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is an often quoted one.

The Army’s case for separating the officers from the enlisted was that in battle you needed to make decisions about sending people into dangerous situations without knowledge of personal information that might make you hesitate to send the most appropriate person or group into a life-threatening situation. I assume this isn’t your situation.

Certainly there are some problems that can and do result from close relationships at work. Managers sometimes show favoritism to their buddies. Some result in improper sexual conduct. Some result in employees taking advantage of a relationship with a supervisor to cover their poor performance. Of course these problems exist in many companies that have policies against “fraternising with the troops.”

Having a policy or discouraging personal relationships won’t eliminate them entirely. In my experience, such policies only make employees angry with the company’s management. Since they don’t work effectively and tend to decrease morale, such sanctions don’t seem like an effective way to tackle the situation.

Rather than have a formal policy against such activity, I’d recommend you handle each situation on its own merit. If a relationship is inappropriate by conventional standards of ethics and morality or is interfering with job performance, it should be stopped, or the employee in question should be terminated.

There are many family-run businesses where the family members, obviously, have close personal relationships with each other and still get along famously at work. While you may be able to point to many that don’t, many do. Therefore, it isn’t close relationships that cause the problems. It’s the way the parties manage them.
I’d suggest that if you’re worried about this issue, it can be resolved by focussing on the things that constitute effective management. This, in turn, should eliminate your concern. A good manager is able to separate personal from business issues. By that I simply mean it’s possible for you to be friends with someone and still make tough decisions about job performance. If you’re friends with someone, it means you already have a positively reinforcing relationship with the person. That’s the only way managers can bring out the best performance in employees.

In fact, I believe if you’re worried about keeping personal and business relationships separate, you won’t be able to develop the best working relationships with your employees.

In order for employees to give you their best at work, you have to know what’s important to them. You need to know about their personal goals, interests and families. If by working for you they’re able to get more of what they want from life, they’ll try to help you do the same. Remember, your employees may spend more waking hours with you and the other employees in your company than any other people in their lives. Can an impersonal workplace bring out the best in employees? I think not.

One important key to keep in mind is that personal relationships at work aren’t a problem when you have clear measures of performance. Good performers should receive positive consequences for their good work and poor performers shouldn’t. This should be independent of whether someone is a personal friend or not. Of course, all relationships are more productive when accountabilities are clear, where the behaviours necessary to accomplish the results are spelled out, where results are tracked, where feedback on performance is continuous, and where celebrations and positive reinforcement for improvement are frequent.

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