Can I Be Friends With My Direct Reports?

Can I be friends with my employee? | Bennett

Sarah* got on really well with her direct report and they soon became friendly outside of work, hanging out with each other’s friends and family. But after a while, Sarah’s direct report stopped performing; she kept making excuses for her poor behaviour and performance. “Initially, I believed her excuses, because I trusted her as a friend,” Sarah said. But it became evident that Sarah’s friend was taking advantage of their friendship.

Dismayed, Sarah realised that they would need to have a performance conversation. “Initially I put it off, delaying the inevitable,” Sarah said, “but her performance continued to worsen.”

Soon, it began to reflect badly on Sarah as a manager and she resented her friend for putting her in this position. When the inevitable performance conversation occurred, it did not go well. Both sides were upset that it was even taking place.

A few weeks later her friend resigned. Sarah was both relieved and upset. Regardless, their friendship was over.

The outcome 

“I learned a hard lesson: friendships with direct reports are not advisable,” Sarah said. Of course, it’s okay to be friendly. Taking your direct report out for coffee during a 1×1 or the occasional lunch is okay. It’s good to build a rapport with the people who work with you. But if you cross the line into socialising outside of work, it can be very difficult to navigate performance issues if they arise.

Does that mean I can’t have friends at work?

“No, of course not,” Sarah said. “Many people make long-term friendships in the office. It makes their workday more enjoyable, and is important for mental wellbeing. Not having friends, in general, can make life lonely.” 

What if I’m promoted and have to manage employees who are my friends?

This is also challenging. Sarah believes that sometimes your peers can be jealous of your promotion, or resentful when you start acting as their manager and not their friend. This may reflect in their behaviour towards you, and in their performance.

“It’s worth having an honest conversation upfront about what your new role means to your relationship, and set clear expectations. Also consider whether you should stop socialising with them outside of work,” Sarah advised.

Can’t I just balance being a manager and a friend?

Sarah outlines several challenges that arise here:

  1. As a manager, your priority is to the company that employs you. It’s your job to make sure your part of the business is performing well, and it is meeting expectations. This includes ensuring your employees are similarly performing well and meeting expectations. If your friend’s performance starts to slip, you need to talk to them about it. “Cue the awkwardness,” Sarah said. 
  2. Performance conversations can be challenging at the best of times. They’re even harder if you’re a less experienced manager. Add in the friendship factor, and it’s harder still. Sure, you can raise an issue informally, and not try to turn it into ‘a big deal’, but if your friend’s performance does not improve, you’ll have no choice but to have a formal conversation. If your friend becomes upset with you for raising their performance issue, it’s likely to permeate your friendship outside of the workplace. 
  3. You may be reluctant to raise performance issues with a friend. But this can escalate if your friend takes advantage of the situation and continues to not perform. As Sarah learned, if you don’t act on the situation and others notice, it will reflect poorly on you as a manager. Your remaining direct reports may also become demoralised and resentful towards you – and your friend – for having to take up the slack. This leads to another issue: perceptions of bias. 
  4. Friendship can make you impartial when judging someone’s performance. You may regard a friend as doing a better job than they’re actually doing, or turn a blind eye if they’re not as good as they should be. Other people in the business, including in your team, may then judge your performance based on how you handle your friendship. They may be concerned, and possibly rightly so, that you’re biased towards your friend – or in their eyes – against them. This in turn can damage your reputation as a manager.

3 Lessons Learned about being friends with employees

These are the key lessons Sarah learned from her experience:

  1. Don’t establish friendships with your direct reports outside of the workplace. If you were promoted into the role, have an honest conversation with your friend and establish clear boundaries. 
  2. Don’t put off awkward conversations with an employee just because they’re your friend. Nip any issues in the bud as soon as possible.
  3. It’s okay to be friendly with your direct reports, and take them out as a team to celebrate successes, or even for a coffee for 1×1 conversations. But don’t initiate invitations for social activities outside of work and politely decline them when offered.

*Not her real name.

Managers Anonymous shares mistakes managers have made, and the lessons they have learned from them. They help managers to learn from others so they can avoid the same headaches. Do you have an experience you would be willing to share for the benefit of others? Write to info@lainibennett.com.

This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA

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