How to walk the fine line between business and pleasure.
If a trainer on your payroll invited you to his 25th birthday bash, would you go? What about having drinks and dinner with your front-desk staff on a Saturday night or grabbing a quick cappuccino with a group exercise instructor you supervise?
Making a distinction between friends and colleagues can be tricky. At what point is it best to relegate business relationships to, well, strictly business? This article—the fourth in a series of five on setting boundaries—looks at common predicaments and practical solutions associated with boss-employee friendships. It addresses boundaries managers might put in place for interacting with employees in a social context, and explores how those interactions could affect workplace relations.
Most management experts are quick to advise against hiring friends or cultivating friendships with employees. These experts recommend keeping employees at a comfortable arm’s length. While you don’t want to become so aloof as to build barriers between you and your staff, the experts explain, creating professional boundaries makes sense, especially when the lack of them could make you vulnerable to accusations of favoritism.
For the sake of argument, let’s say you have become good friends with an employee. Rewarding this person with an unjustifiable promotion or looking the other way when she arrives 15 minutes late for her shift would be a glaring example of favoritism most managers wouldn’t dream of displaying. But even if you are careful to treat staff members equally, you could find yourself inadvertently dishing out preferential treatment. For example, imagine this scenario:
An extra shift becomes available for a weight room attendant. You happen to know that an employee who is also your buddy is strapped for cash because he’s paying off a hefty student loan. So you gladly assign the shift to him.
One problem with this scenario is that your other employees might need the money just as much as your friend and you wouldn’t know about it, since people who are simply staff members don’t divulge details about their personal lives the way friends do.
Avoiding favoritism by clearly defining work-related policies and procedures is essential, says Isabelle Guay, the group exercise coordinator at FitCity for Women, a chain of fitness clubs based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Regardless of your relationships with staff, she says, you must guard against treating any one employee more favorably than another by sticking to a distinct set of guidelines. For instance, if you don’t tolerate tardiness, make sure all staff members are aware that you expect them to arrive on time. The more openly and succinctly you communicate this policy, the more accountable all staff members must be. Make up a list of unbiased criteria for filling open positions or granting promotions. (See “Establishing Criteria to Avoid Favoritism.”)
As soon as you waver from your rules or criteria to help or protect a friend, you’re no longer acting as a fair manager—and all your employees will know it.
Even if you never treat an employee-friend more leniently or favorably than the rest of the staff, other employees may perceive that you do. The perception that everyone is not operating on a level playing field may have a negative impact on employee morale.
One solution is to make sure you are friendly with all staff members. At the very least, make an effort to connect on a social level with at least one or two employees every day. Take a few moments to ask them about their families, vacations or movies they’ve enjoyed recently. You could also make a point of socializing with staff members as a group rather than with one or two select employees. Plan get-togethers rooted in work relationships, and keep them professional and focused on team-building. For example, once a season invite everyone to your home or the club after hours for a potluck dinner to celebrate a job well done.
“If a manager and employee socialize as friends, each one needs to understand that work is work, and anything that happens outside the fitness club is distinct,” says Geoff Bagshaw, the group exercise manager for Bally Total Fitness at the Eaton Centre in Toronto. The success of such an approach may depend on circumstance.
One fitness director I knew used to complain about an irreverent staff member who wouldn’t give the director a break. No matter what approach this manager took, she could not command the respect she felt she deserved as boss. The difficult employee snickered at the manager’s reprimands and generally disregarded her authority. I eventually discovered that, despite their tumultuous work relationship, these two sometimes spent Saturday nights out drinking together. Case closed.
Of course you want to relax around friends, but socializing with employees requires some degree of formality. I was once invited to a social gathering at a fellow manager’s home. I was expecting to mingle with her friends—mostly people I didn’t know. When I arrived, however, I was surprised to see a small group of this manager’s employees—staff I also supervised indirectly. Their presence totally changed the party atmosphere for me because I felt I couldn’t step away from my manager persona.
According to Guay, that’s how it should be. “A strategy for drawing boundaries when you socialize with staff is to maintain a level of professionalism, behaving similarly to how you behave at work,” she says. “You can still have fun and be friendly, but within the context of your role as manager.” Although with friends you might air grievances about work, discuss certain details of your personal life or share your political views, for example, broaching these topics with employees would be inappropriate.
When it comes to turning business relationships into close friendships, most experts say, don’t do it. On the other hand, if you hire people with values, personalities or habits similar to your own, you’re likely to hit it off as friends too. Just remember, getting sociable with staff forces you to walk a fine line between acting as boss to a friend on the job and being on equal footing outside of work. If you don’t skillfully separate the two roles, you might lose an employee, a friend or both.
Although it can be awkward to evaluate or discipline an employee who’s also your friend, Bagshaw observes, “If you have strong interpersonal skills, you should be able to overcome [the awkwardness].” This is where setting clear parameters for work-related policies and employee expectations becomes especially important.
In the end, says Guay, “You have to choose your friends—and employees—wisely. If I had to deal with a problem at work involving an employee who was also a friend,” she says, “I’d feel confident that she’d understand and react maturely. I wouldn’t choose to be friends with someone who wouldn’t.”
If, however, a friendship with an employee even remotely compromises what’s best for business or your success as a manager, it’s time to cut ties. “Most fitness managers work more than 40 hours a week,” Guay points out. “Spending even a portion of that time feeling uncomfortable or taken advantage of is hardly worth the one evening a week you may spend socializing with an employee. You’re better off finding another friend.”
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How do you ensure that all employees receive the same treatment from you? Establish objective criteria for making management decisions, advises Isabelle Guay, the group exercise coordinator at FitCity for Women.
For example, when she needs to fill a coveted prime-time class on the group exercise schedule, she follows set criteria to determine which instructor is best suited for the position. “This ensures that all employees receive the same consideration,” she explains. In setting criteria you might ask yourself:
- Who already has a prime-time slot?
- Whose classes are especially well-attended?
- Which instructors help most often with subbing and special events?
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