Friday, October 17, 2014

Managers need to be friendly, not friends, with employees

I loved college for a number of reasons.  One of them was I had a laid back job at a major corporation with a supervisor who rivaled my best friends on campus. It was a great place to work, at least for a short period of time.

In fact, my supervisor was amazing for quite some time. During the day she would defend our division against the corporate “big wigs” who visited our office semi-annually from the East Coast (and who we felt knew nothing of what we did). After hours she was chummy with the team through various social engagements. It all was a workplace dream come true until personal conflict entered into the picture.

Slowly but surely, as our division developed personal issues between co-workers so entered the problems associated with “picking sides” by our supervisor. Friendships with subordinates became problematic because professional decisions were being made on an emotional and personal basis, favoritism started to blanket the office, morale went down and performance started showing it.
These performance and operations issues did not go unnoticed by the higher-ups, resulting in some “come to Jesus” meetings my supervisor’s reassignment to another position. It was a hard lesson to learn, I am sure, and had a major impact on the company.

Is it OK for managers to be friends with their employees?

Over the years I have worked with a lot of management. Some have understood the balance between personal and professional relationships. Others would rather play the nice guy and be buddies rather than bosses.

This is an issue with newly branded managers all the way up to experienced and “C” level executives, and there’s not any simple answer or scenario.

We spend a lot of time at work and with our co-workers.  So it is easy, and almost natural, for friendships with co-workers to develop. It also is important to remember employees and managers alike are still people. Emotions, beliefs, biases, opinions, etc., all enter into the workplace regardless of who we are or what position we hold.

That’s where the problem itself lies when bosses become buddies. Friendships have their ups, downs, bruises and bumps.  Wouldn’t friendships be even more complicated if one of the friends had the ability to hire, fire, promote or discipline the other friend?

The answer is pretty simple. Not only would this be complicated, but it would introduce complaints about favoritism, discriminatory employment practices and unrealistic expectations.

Any “negative” decision made, especially mainly on the management side, is going to have a heavy impact on the “friend” on the other side. More than likely the decision is going to be taken personally, esulting in an emotional response — sooner or later, inside or outside the workplace.

Think of your ultimate betrayal and that gives you a small sense of what this story could end. I’ve seen it happen, and folks it is not pretty.

I am not recommending that managers should not have any relationships with employees. What I am recommending is “friendly” leadership that doesn’t cross over the “friendship” boundary.

Finding this balance is tough, no doubt. We can always start by looking at what employees look for in great leaders. Employees follow leaders who demonstrate interest in them, care, concern, compassion, understanding and support, and the ability to lead by example.

The best foundation for any relationship in the workplace should be based on professionalism and business guidelines. While friendships between management and employees make for a fun and light workplace, they can lead to big problems. Overall, it’s just bad business.
Monica Bitrick is CEO of Bitrick Consulting Group, an Idaho Falls human resources company.

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