Can a Boss Be A Friend?

by Michael Haberman on January 12, 2011 · 16 comments

In an article in Smart Money (the online version) writer Catey Hill talks about several things your boss won’t tell you. These include: “I am reading your emails”, “I think you are too old”, “I know when you are faking it”, “Your kid is your problem”, “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy”, “I don’t have time for you”, and “It’s all about me.”  All the sections were interesting but the one that really caught my eye and raised a question was about the boss being a friend. It made me wonder “Can a boss be a friend?

After giving it some thought my answer is “No”. I think bosses can be friendly, but there has to be a line in a working relationship that should not be crossed. In Hill’s article 6 out of 10 employees consider their boss to be a friend. I guess that leads to the question of “what do you mean by friend?” You will have decide on your own definition of that. Let’s take a look at the relationship from both sides.

From the employee’s point of view having your boss be your friend has an upside and a downside. The upside may be, as Hill says “Being the boss’s pal, or pet, comes with perks.” You may get plum assignments, more attention, more money, more lienient treatment. Again Hill says “Good relationships tend to lead to higher worker engagement; compatibility can help a worker get a raise or a promotion; everyone likes to work with people they like and trust.”

The downside may involve hurt feelings and wounded pride when the personal relationship takes second place to work and the necessity of the business alters a work assignment, or a reporting relationship, or a performance evaluation is not good, or a raise is not given. Friendship can be damaged in these situations. Additionally, if by being a “friend” the boss now learns something about you on an outside of work basis that now gets brought into the work relationship and gets used against you then both the work and personal relationships are damaged.

Now let’s look at this from the standpoint of the boss. The upside includes the following. As a boss you want to be liked. Particularly if you are the same age as most of your direct reports. This may be the best group from which to draw your friends. This is multiplied if you were promoted from a peer group and these people were your friends. You may want to show that you are caring by being friends and knowing personal details about employees and their families. It gives you a social life in some situations. Having cooperative and friendly employees makes the group more productive and makes you look better.

The downside from the boss’ point of view. You wonder if people are your friends because of you or your position. Is someone trying to take advantage of me in order to get better assignments or more money. Are they using my friendship as a power play over others. Is my friendship with someone being viewed as something else by others. Will I be accused of trying to have a romantic relationship with a friend. What happens when I have to give a negative review to, or discipline, or terminate a friend due to their work performance. Will I be able to do that. What are the consequences to me if I am forced to choose between a friend and the company?

I am sure you can think of other reasons this type of “friendship” would not work. Or you may be able to list a number of reasons they do work. Part of that would depend on the closeness of the friendship. I have had bosses who felt they were friends and then went on to show how sloppy of a drunk they were or demonstrated their “pick up lines”. I didn’t consider our friendship to be close enough to warrent that behavior. In my boss-employee relationship I prefer that there be some distance to allow me to make decisions as a boss as needed or as an employee as needed.

My point of view may be due to the types of companies I grew up in. I have not had a place of employment where I was friends first and then joined the company. My work friendships started as work relationship first. So I would be interested in hearing from other who have had “boss as friend” work well for them. It can be a complicated relationship for many, so let us know if it can work.

In summary, I don’t think it can work. It is complicated by culture, gender, ages and the social environment. And if your overriding responsibility is to the business friendships can get in the way.

If you want to read the Smart Money article you can find it here.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather January 12, 2011 at 11:53 am

I couldn’t agree more. I was promoted from within so I had a close relationship with many of the employees. Since my promotion the “friendships” have slowly fallen apart. I even had one that, for lack of a better way to put it, “threw a fit” and made several false accusations because she didn’t get her way. I also had a couple that thought they should get special treatment.

A boss being a friend is like dating a co-worker, it’s just not a good idea!

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Michael Haberman January 13, 2011 at 11:42 am

Heather, thanks for the comment. Occasionally office romances work out and so does being a good friend of the boss. But there is so much potential for things going wrong that you have to navigate the relationship very carefully.

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anon January 12, 2011 at 11:53 am

I don’t have a problem being “friendly”, but that doesn’t meet my definition of being friends. I find that I need a certain amount of distance to be an effective manager. I also need that same distance if not more when dealing with my manager. Otherwise, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

After that boss became my former boss, it is possible to move to a closer relationship, i.e. friend (assuming the original relationship was pretty great to start with).

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anonymous January 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm

You’re smack on. Years of experience showed the military that it doesn’t work, which is why there are no fraternization rules. When they are broken, problems normally follow. I’ve never had a boss for a close friend. Friendly yes, friend no.

We have it here. Folks know who the favorite is. Mid-level folks have learned not to criticize that person because the reaction is not good. He got the fast track promotion, etc. You learn to roll with it, but you also resent it.

Good post.

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Nicole January 12, 2011 at 8:05 pm

I definitely agree that having a boss as a “friend” does not work. I currently work in an environment where the company created a new position and decided the best route was to promote from within to eliminate the costs associate with training external candidates. While I was just coming in, I did however get to witness a few relationships go down in flames after this “re-structure”. As a result, it has now created an environment where the new “managers” are being ridiculed for their lack of leadership capabilities, professionalism and interpersonal abilities; largely because of the insight their former peers (who are now their direct reports) had of their “pals” work ethic/integrity. It’s all fun and games until your “slacker buddy” becomes your boss and now expects you to do your job and theirs.

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Michael Haberman January 13, 2011 at 11:40 am

Nicole, thanks for the comment. Yeah everything can go smoothly until some wants to use prior knowledge for their personal gain.

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Judy Lindenberger January 13, 2011 at 11:31 am

I will be the contrary one. In my experience you can be friends with your boss as long as you both agree that the organization’s and team’s goals take precedence over the friendship and that no special favors will be granted. In my experience, you can be friends with your boss when both the boss and subordinate are able to give and receive honest feedback. And there has to be respect that the boss is always the boss.

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Michael Haberman January 13, 2011 at 11:38 am

Judy, you make a good point. For it to work you need to define the friendship and define the boundries of the friendship. But both parties have to be very open to that and honest about the relationship. I think that is hard for many people to do, especially if the friendship came first before the “boss” part. Thanks for the comment.

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Sarah Kennington January 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm

I have certainly had experience on both sides of this argument. I do have to say that it is possible, although certainly not always ideal. I own a small business and to start, we hired a lot of people that we already knew (and were friends with) from a previous business. For the most part, it has worked out very well. In many cases, it has helped us. We know them, trust them and value their experience and input. They know us, repect us, and want the best for the business as a whole. We have an understanding that “work is work” and “friendship is friendship.” When there are issues, although it can be difficult, we approach them as a boss who values their service, but still expects the best.
My worst experience with employee friendship was with someone we didn’t know until we started this business. He quickly climbed to the top and earned our trust and friendship. That unfortunately led us to trust him blindly, until we found out that he had, over time, taken advantage of that friendship and stolen thousands of dollars from us.
So, while I can prove that the relationship CAN work, it should always be tempered with a good dose of common sense!

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Michael Haberman January 13, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Sarah, thank you for the comment and great example. A good dose of commonsense is always valuable and often missing.

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Amber January 13, 2011 at 3:23 pm

I think perhaps in a large corporation where “policy is policy” and the role of employer a n employee is well defined, it is very possible. The boss & employee probably will not be best friends but catching the football game together, sharing off work experiences, etc can be healthy & beneficial. There is no motivation for work than not wanting to let a boss down because they are a friend. On the other hand, I feel that a wise employee/employer will not share everything they are experiencing outside of work, especially where struggles are concerned. I do not believe this is less than a friendship than other friendships, just slightly different rules. I have several bosses that remain my good friends after our work relationship changed and ended up in different companies.

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Michael Haberman January 13, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Amber, I agree. There is plenty of room for being friendly, in fact it helps smooth over bumps in the relationship. But being friendly does not necessarily mean friends.

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Lena January 15, 2011 at 9:07 am

Michael,

Thanks for an interesting topic. I believe it can be cultural differences in leadership styles and therefor this can be a challenge of different magnitude in different areas of the world. However I believe if you should be successfull being friends with your employees it requires integrity, respect and transparency from both sides: Integrity to be able to draw a line of when to share information that relates to work or not. Respect that there is a line. Transparency to the people around that there is a friendship and when this matters and when it doesn’t.

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Mary Appleton January 24, 2011 at 4:11 am

I don’t think that a boss can ever be a friend in the true sense of the word because there’s the question of status. In an employee – employer relationship, there is always an unequal balance of status and therefore the relationship can never be equal. And that is what friendship is all about – having an equal with whom you can share stories, dilemmas and good times.

Outside of work, this status can be more balanced. However, things may run into difficulty if you’re the boss and the employee wants to know ‘inside’ company information. You might also feel compromised if you are privy to sensitive information (eg, that the employee’s going to be made redundant). The boss can show caring behaviour; a shoulder to cry on or an ear to bend, but the fact that the relationship has ultimately formed from an unequal balance in the workplace (as far as status is concerned) means there’s always a barrier in the relationship.

Furthermore, the boss would need to be cautious about what behaviour he or she exhibited to the ‘friend’/employee – behaviour on a night out for example, or accidentally letting something slip about the company, could be detrimental to the boss’ own career in the future, especially if the friendship sours outside of work.

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