New articles are constantly popping up in front of me. Good writers say a great title is what draws readers to your content, and they must be right because I scan for titles that match my interests every day. This title popped up recently, Your Employees Are Not Your Friends. I scoffed internally, and nearly scrolled past it, but then I stopped. Why not check it out? After all, personal growth is my goal- perhaps the author has an insight I have not thought of. I clicked the link.

The article, written by Lacy Starling, a serial entrepreneur, educator, and storyteller, is well thought out and written. While I still disagree with the premise that your employees cannot be your friends, I do agree with much of how she describes treating employees as a whole.

I believe that, when done carefully, you can and should be friends with your employees, because I believe in the power of relationships.

I believe in the power of relationships. 

After reading the article, I had a 1:1 with one of my employees. He happens to be someone I greatly respect, and I call him my friend. In fact, when I jumped between employers he followed me to the new company. When I asked if he considered me to be a friend, his emphatic response was YES!. Though I have been his boss for many years, we have never had an issue with the distinction between being friends and having an employer/employee relationship. As we discussed it, a few important points came up that, when done right, facilitate great friendships with your employees. However, if done poorly, it can spell disaster for your team, just as Lacy Starling experienced. 

Trust is Reciprocal

“The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust.” – Abraham Lincoln

With all employees, trust is a critical ingredient to the relationship. I have found that a trust relationship between employer and employee is best precipitated by the employer. You hired each individual for a purpose, extend trust to them by default and let them prove themselves unworthy of your trust. 

Operating from a starting place of trust makes you vulnerable. Employees have the choice to take advantage of the vulnerability and abuse the trust, or rise to the occasion and reciprocate. Through speaking with peers, and in my own experience, I have found it to be exceedingly rare that trust is abused. 

Do Not Play Favorites

I have never been the most athletic person in my circle of friends. When picking teams for gym sports in elementary school, I would watch all the athletic kids get picked before me. There were a few kids in school who the team captains always wanted, and they would rush to pick those kids first. It gutted me that I was never part of the favored group. At first, I pushed myself hard to be as good as the athletic kids, but after a while, I just gave up. It was not good for the morale of a young kid.

We are not kids anymore, but the sting of watching the boss play favorites with your coworkers is still there.

It is important, therefore, to be careful not to play favorites with your employees. As you build relationships, it will be natural to want to be with the employees you connect with the most. There are two simple ways to combat this: get to know everyone on your team, and do not spend time with only one or a few people. 

Getting to know everyone on your team keeps you from being locked in a bubble, where you only know a few of your employees. Ensuring you spend time with each of them will encourage a strong connection and reduce the possibility of forming cliques.

Treat Everyone Equally

My best friend and I played trumpet together in fifth grade. The trumpet section was arranged by chair. The lower the chair number, the higher the skill level of the player, or so the ranking was said to work. My friend and I were very competitive with each other and would spend hours practicing to win the coveted first chair, however, we were always baffled to be chairs seven and eight. We doubled down on the practice and stayed after class with our teacher to improve faster. We had a cleaner tone and missed fewer notes than those ahead of us, but no matter what we did, we never were able to break through that sixth chair barrier. Some time into the school year we learned the truth, the chairs ahead of us were reserved for students with a parent on the PTA. We were not all treated equally. It was not right.

I learned a valuable lesson while struggling through band class- everyone deserves to be treated equally. 

As you build relationships with your employees you must keep in sight equal treatment. It is not ethically, or legally, ok to treat some people on your team differently than others. 

Here are signs that you may not be treating everyone equally:

  • A particular employee is always getting easy projects.
  • An employee is called the “teacher’s pet”. This may be in jest, but even jokes may contain components of truth that others are hesitant to come out and say.

Be Careful with Your Authority

My suspicion is that this, more than the other points, is the most difficult to master. An employee’s natural response is to do what their employer says, and the employer naturally directs employees. That is ok and needed in the workplace, however, once you venture out of those four walls your authority as the employer must be considered with care.

Outside of the workplace, allow your employees to take the lead in social activities. Show them that you can follow just as easily as you can lead. 

Under no circumstances can you flex your authority or threaten consequences at work for actions outside of the workplace.

Do Not Talk About Work Outside of the Workplace

Another good rule of thumb is to not discuss work matters outside of the workplace. A discussion of work can quickly turn into work. It is not fair to steal time from your employees in this manner. This also reestablishes the employer/employee dynamic that you should seek to eliminate while outside the workplace.

After you have been working together for some time, it can become natural to reminisce and tell stories about the projects you have worked on together. This is ok, as long as you stick to past projects. Current projects should be largely off-limits as they can quickly become working sessions and reintroduce the employer/employee dynamic.

Remember Who is The Boss

As your friendship outside of the workplace grows, the lines between employer and employee can become blurred if not carefully tended. It is important that you remain vigilant to ensure this does not happen. To do this, expectations on employee interactions in the workplace should be applied equally and to everyone. 

If an employee crosses the line you must firmly and politely remind them of the workplace expectations. Most of the time, when expectations are clear, and communication is open, employees will willingly conform. If there are repeated violations, they may not yet be ready for friendship outside of the workplace. 

No matter how close you get to any individuals on your team, keep in mind that you are the leader and your team still needs a leader, not a buddy.

Your team still needs a leader, not a buddy

Expect More

In a prior team, I was very intentional about relationship building with my team. I knew intimate details of their lives, and we would talk both in and out of the workplace. I knew their families, dreams, and ambitions. The strength of our relationship allowed me to push the team harder toward their goals. My team outperformed every other team at the company, and not by a little. I learned after I had moved on that every member of my team had moved into a leadership role. I am proud of them. We speak often, to this day.

Being friends with an employee does not mean that they get the easy work, in fact, I would go so far as to say that notion should be flipped on its head entirely. I expect more of those with whom I am friends.

Being someone’s friend gives you a unique insight into their life; their hopes and dreams. You get privileged access to push them to be more.

Not Everyone Can Do It

Throughout this article, I have been an advocate for being friends with your employees. If, after reading this, you are feeling intimidated, that is OK! For me, being friends with my employees comes naturally, but it is not that way for everyone. I know some great leaders who struggle with the notion of being friends with their employees. In fact, the entire reason this article was written was to show another viewpoint from Lacy Starling, that it is possible to be friends with your employees. Lacy sounds like an amazing leader- if she struggles with it then there are others out there who do as well.

On the flip side, you may not have an issue with being friends with an employee, but they may struggle to be friends with you. That is OK! 

The beauty of leadership is that there is no one size fits all. You get to use your unique talents, and those of your employees, to do something great in this world. Do not force yourself to conform to someone else’s idea of what a leader should look like.

Photo by Yanapi Senaud on Unsplash