Should managers be friends with their employees?

31 August 2012 -


Does becoming friends with your staff improve their work? Or does a “buddy boss” only spell trouble for everyone? Kayleigh Ziolo hears both views


Karen Shaw, Director of Employee Excellence and founder of Inner Communications therapy practice

We are social creatures by nature, and need to feel like we are part of something. Friendship is as important in the workplace as it is in other aspects of our lives. From intimate relationships with a partner, to friendships with your colleagues, all are based on the same set of core values: trust, respect, cooperation, collaboration, support, empathy and honesty. If you don’t have these values in a working relationship, how well are you going to work with your manager? If you don’t trust, respect and understand one another, or even like one another, teamwork and collaboration will be at best difficult and at worst completely undermined. Arguments, stress, tension and conflict all stem from a lack of mutual understanding and cooperation, and this is where employee engagement levels can plummet, along with performance levels.

It is the manager’s responsibility to get the best performance out of their employees for the company and the team. It is also the manager’s responsibility to protect the working relationship and maintain professionalism.

Being around people you relate to and trust makes this a lot easier. It is unlikely that any manager would employ anyone they believe would fall short of these values.

Professionalism isn’t threatened by friendship; in fact, it can be reinforced by it. Having signed a contract to be part of the company, employees know what is expected of them in the context of the working environment. To fall outside those expectations is to let the company and the manager down. Feeling connected with the company through friendship means employees are more engaged, more dedicated and more likely to go the extra mile for the company and for the people they count as friends.

Also, the workplace can reinforce friendships. Outside the office, the boundaries of a friendship are more fluid, and the relationship can sometimes be more complicated to maintain. In the workplace, the friendships you form are more structured – you have a good idea of boundaries and simplify the relationship somewhat, which can actually lead to a very solid friendship foundation.

As a manager, it is up to you to use your discretion as to how friendly you should become with employees. Some working cultures are more formal and simply don’t allow the space or time for relationship building. You need not feel you have to be everyone’s “buddy”. Often there will be individuals who, without causing conflict, are simply not comfortable with friendships in the office, and that should also be respected.


Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, authors of Being the Boss: The Three Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader

Remember the best coach or teacher you had growing up? Most likely, these professionals wanted the best for you. They wanted you to succeed, and they did all in their power to help you – but they weren’t your friends. Your doctor doesn’t hesitate to put you through medically necessary discomfort and even pain. And you knew, and accepted, that your results in class would depend on your test scores, not what the teacher thought of you personally.

No one gets upset over these realities. It’s the nature of the relationships involved. So why should the manager-employee relationship be any different? It exists to serve a purpose external to the relationship itself, which is to accomplish defined work, just as the doctor-patient and teacher-student relationships exist for purposes other than the relationship. The relationship between friends exists for itself; it satisfies our human need for unqualified acceptance and support.

Such real friendship can and often does interfere with the purposes of other types of relationships. For the manager, it can distort decisions. An employee-friend might want – or indeed expect – a promotion for which another is better qualified in the manager’s opinion. If friendship is allowed to trump merit, the manager’s whole team and its work will suffer. That is why manager and employee cannot be real friends, at least in the course of the work they do together.

The phrase “real friends” is important, for we distinguish between “friends” and “friendly”. In fact, we believe bosses should be cordial, caring and warm in all their relationships. They must want their people to succeed because all will ultimately rise or fall together.

We often get heated responses to this argument from people who seem to assume that any relationship other than friendship must be contentious, uncaring and impersonal. This is not the case. Recall your relationship with that coach, teacher, doctor or any other professional with whom you’ve worked closely. Most likely, it was not unfriendly. But it existed to serve a purpose – purpose first, relationship second. In friendship, it’s the other way around.

Maintaining a warm but ultimately purpose-driven relationship requires discipline. Human chemistry will naturally pull some people together; friends often co-found companies, family members sometimes work together and a peer is sometimes promoted to manage former colleagues, including some who had become friends. In those situations, it’s best for those involved to discuss what the relationship is and what each can expect of the other. The alternative is to either terminate the work relationship or watch the friendship suffer and wither.

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