Should Employees and Bosses be Friends?

Vol. 15 •Issue 17 • Page 30
Should Employees and Bosses be Friends?

Experts advise on where to draw the line when it comes to workplace friendships.

Whether an employee or the boss, you may find yourself wondering where to draw the line regarding office friendships. While you want to feel comfortable around individuals you work with every day, certain information should remain private. Because each relationship and circumstance differs, there is no clear yes or no answer regarding whether you should be friends or not. However, ADVANCE consulted three experts to discover how to decipher cues and clues that will help you determine if your boss or employee wants to be friends and what information should never be divulged.

Arlene Vernon, PHR, MBA, MEd, president and human resource management consultant, HRx Inc., Eden Prairie, MN, said typical everyday topics are acceptable, such as weekend highlights and your children’s activities. “But stop the conversation if it involves personal finances, problems with a spouse or family member or a personal or family illness (unless it pertains to an absence),” Vernon said.

Many employees forget that their boss wears two hats. One is to establish a level of friendly communication; the other is to supervise. When you think “if my boss ever knew…” before saying something to a co-worker, don’t say it. “Chances are the grapevine isn’t that secure, especially if the information is hot and juicy,” Vernon said.

Social compatibility with your manager can either be rewarding or difficult, said Nikki Nash, media relations manager, Phenix & Phenix Literary Publicists, Austin, TX. It is important to feel comfortable talking with your supervisor about work and non-work related issues. If you are able to discuss topics other than business, then the relationship can be more fulfilling, but being too friendly with a supervisor may cost more than you bargained.

Often when employees and supervisors are too close, Nash said, the line is crossed that can result in a tense situation. Sometimes a friendly relationship with your employer can lead to misunderstandings and increased apathy for the job. Or the relationship may be mistaken because of increased confusion regarding the other’s role: Is she my boss or my friend right now?

Theresa M. Welbourne, PhD, president and CEO, eePulse and adjunct professor, Executive Education, Rossn School of Business, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, believes bosses and employees should not be friends, but should be friendly. When individuals start becoming too friendly, they also get chatty and say things about themselves, friends or co-workers that they will regret later. Another risk is that a relationship with your boss could negatively impact relationships with peers on whom you depend.

Want to be Friends?

Both bosses and employees can look for cues and clues from each other that indicate whether the other person is open to becoming friends.

Signs the boss doesn’t want to be friends:

• changes the subject

• looks away

• responds with the comment “too much information”

• sticks to business-related conversations

• asks you to lunch and discusses only business

• keeps to herself

• when visiting your work area she stands, gets right to business and leaves

• exhibits a professional attitude

• has short responses

• limits her time with other co-workers

• doesn’t participate in after-work activities

Signs the boss is open to friendship:

• is chatty or conversational

• tells jokes

• initiates conversations about non-work related topics

• asks questions about personal interests

• provides invitations to after-work events

• talks about her own family and time outside of work

• hangs around the break room with other employees

• sits down in your work area with no work-related purpose

Feeling Uncomfortable

If you’re uncomfortable discussing your personal life with your boss, it’s time to give clues without damaging your professional relationship. Change the discussion back to work topics, Vernon said. If she asks questions, answer them politely and briefly and then close the conversation at a natural pause.

Know in advance what areas are safe to talk about and what areas are dangerous, Nash said. Stay clear of personal discussions that make you appear unstable, unprofessional or shallow. Most people can take a hint. However, if necessary, say something like, “With you as my manager, this conversation is getting a little too personal for me.” Keep the mood light and friendly.

Party Time

How about outside of the workplace? Suppose you’re having a party at your home. You’re inviting co-workers in your department. Should you invite your boss, too?

Your natural instinct for this situation is probably the best, Nash said. If you are unsure, leave the ball in your supervisor’s court by inviting her. This allows your boss to decline graciously. She might feel the situation is inappropriate to your relationship, but offering shows respect and is always a nice gesture.

If it’s a department function, it’s fine to invite your supervisor, Dr. Welbourne said. But if it’s a social event and the group of peers is equals who may be uncomfortable with the boss present, then don’t invite him.

If everyone socializes in the office, Vernon said you would be remiss to ignore the boss. After the party, everyone will be talking about it and your supervisor could feel that you’ve deliberately excluded him. On the other hand, if no one likes the boss, to include him could sour the event.

Otherwise, for activities outside of the workplace, it’s fine to invite co-workers and not the boss, Vernon said. Most likely everyone doesn’t always do everything together.

An Ideal Relationship

A good balance of personal and professional conversation—where you can be sure of yourself and make good small talk, feel comfortable to share a little, but not be in a position to know too much about the boss and vice versa—is best, Vernon said. Ideally, you can go to lunch or break and mix the two, but your personal boundaries won’t be at risk. You can bring up work concerns, no matter what they are, and not feel that you’ve just sabotaged your career by being honest. You are recognized for your accomplishments without fear of intimidating your supervisor.

Karen Appold is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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