Want to Be a Friend to Your Employees? Here's How to Make It Work

Very rarely do your friends have a vested interest in your finances or savings plan. The exception? When those friends are also your employees.

It’s a complicated situation, the friend-boss dance. Plenty can get in the way of developing friendships between people at different levels within an organization. And the notion of taking the friendship to a more serious level? It’s why so many companies institute “no dating” policies between superiors and subordinates.

Yet having a strong connection with employees isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can be utterly rewarding. Plus, knowing what’s going on in your team members’ lives and what they care about most can help you become a better manager. I recently celebrated my 50th birthday and was touched when so many of my staff came to the party. A few weeks later, we had an unusual Christmas party complete with an ax-throwing competition — talk about laughs!

Without a doubt, socializing with employees outside of the workplace provides a relaxed atmosphere where we can get to know one another better, whether we’re all at a concert or just having light snacks at someone’s house. This builds trust and camaraderie, which can lead to significantly improved innovation rates when everyone’s back at the grind.

Still, having friendships with your employees can get complicated. You have to know when to draw the line and pull back. Otherwise, you can get into an uncomfortable position.

 

Navigating the Stumbling Blocks of Being a Friend-Boss

Before I became CEO, I was “The Boss’s Daughter,” a reputation I still sometimes have to work around at Jelmar. By and large, I’ve overcome that designation because I consistently put in long hours, care about the people around me, and focus on moving the company forward. Yet it’s still in the back of my mind that I have to walk the tightrope between being the boss to new employees and a former colleague to those who witnessed my evolution firsthand from the day my father hired me (without a job title!).

Does that mean I can’t call someone I work with a friend? Absolutely not. But I have to consider the right way to balance that type of relationship so we both feel comfortable.

Interested in knowing how you can do likewise? Try these strategies for maintaining a healthier supervisor-employee connection:

 

1. Show your vulnerability.

This can be tough for some leaders. However, if you’re open with the people around you, they tend to reciprocate. Don’t tell your newbie your innermost thoughts on day one, of course, but do be human and humble. Let everyone see that you aren't perfect but strive to be the best "you" possible. They'll be more apt to do likewise.

 

2. Be respectful and polite.

The little things aren’t as little as some people might think. I once left a job because no one said “please” or “thank you.” Even if you don’t want to be buddies with your colleagues, show them you appreciate them by actively listening and remembering what they tell you. Then, use that knowledge to celebrate their important moments such as graduations and engagements. It’s the right thing to do, and perhaps it will lead to a friendship based on commonalities.

 

3. Spend an appropriate amount of quality time with your employees.

Every once in a while, go out with your employees. Head to happy hour after you finish a big project or arrange a team-building event. Just make sure you do it occasionally, not every day. Otherwise, when it comes time to give out bonuses, raises, or promotions, you could find yourself in a pickle. Set your boundaries and have clear expectations from the get-go so you don’t get too close for the comfort of everyone else.

 

4. Establish routine employee evaluation processes — and follow them.

Another way to increase your bond with your employees without going overboard is by instituting routine evaluations. Think beyond the annual HR practice and foster stronger interpersonal relationships by taking team members to lunch every so often. Once there, check in on everything from their professional goals to personal gripes. In time, your employees will look forward to these meetings as valuable touchpoints that keep them in the know—and heard from the heart.

You might not find your best friend working in the office next door, and that’s okay. Your role as a leader isn’t to be a buddy first. Still, don’t negate the possibility of forging friendly connections with the talent you recruit. They could wind up being some of the people who make your life more exciting, engaging, and entertaining.