Should managers keep a workplace friendship?

Last updated on 7 September 2023

Friendships in the workplace are incredibly important, but can a manager be friends with an employee without favouring them? [Source: Shutterstock]

Workplace relationships are often forged through some of the toughest times. You’re working side by side with people who were once complete strangers, and yet you’re getting your hands dirty, rushing to meet deadlines on big projects or soaking in the relief after successfully making it through an understaffed shift. These friendships have the ability to become lifelong relationships.

But what happens when a power divide exists? Should a manager look to actively form friendships, or can a newly promoted manager get away with favouring their best friend? There are plenty of tricky situations linked to workplace friendships, but these tips will help avoid blurring boundaries between work relationships and personal friendships.

Remember you’re the boss

Newly minted managers and team leaders need to hear this the most: you’re the boss now. With newfound responsibilities and pressure from senior management, it’s up to you to steer the team in the right direction.

That of course doesn’t mean you need to throw relationships out the door. Strong workplace relationships will help everyone succeed, but you do have to recognise when authority and discipline are required. Your team needs advice, support and guidance to achieve great outcomes but sometimes a firmer hand is necessary to ensure deadlines and targets are met.

Just don’t go too overboard; there’s no need to bark orders or use authority as a reason to be cold and distant. Instead, accept that your friendship now looks a little different and the way you interact at work has changed.

Maintain equality

It can be easy to show favouritism when you know certain staff members on a deeper level. Perhaps you started on the same day as Emily so you’ve always relied on each other and would pick him first for any task, even if he doesn’t have all the relevant experience. Or it could be that Jack knows how to win you over with a coffee every morning, so he’s happy to ask for some favours when it comes to skipping the hard work. It’s something you would say yes to as a friend, right?

Wrong. It’s time to set aside any friendship and show equal respect for all your teammates. This means acknowledging the best person for a job, sharing the arduous tasks and maintaining balance. The last thing you want is to create discontent between employees who can see friendship equals favouritism. 

Don’t force friendships

There are managers who think the best solution is to always be friends with employees. But friendship is all about equality and there is an inherent imbalance between managers and employees despite the best intentions. So if you can be friendly from the start without looking to establish friendships, you’re on the right track. How can you do that?

  • Avoid oversharing about personal matters. Be polite and interested in social lives, but don’t get caught up in the details unless employees initiate it. 
  • Steer clear of social media and friend requests, particularly if you have a young team. There will be plenty of updates on both sides that aren’t appropriate for a manager-employee relationship.
  • Be authentic from the very beginning. You are there to lead and it doesn’t help anyone to sugar coat feedback or take it easy on an employee for the sake of friendship. Your bond has to be genuine and that means strong leadership is the top priority, not a friendship. 

Avoid gossip

Don’t be a gossip. It’s as simple as that! Managers have to respect privacy and confidentiality and there’s no need for employees to be involved in gossip related to management, and vice versa. And if this means excusing yourself from certain conversations at social events, so be it. Even a simple ‘I’m sorry, I can’t talk about that’ can help you out of a sticky situation.

Communicate clearly

Above all else, it’s essential to communicate clearly when maintaining or establishing workplace friendships. You have to be comfortable with delivering feedback – good or bad – while also expressing what you can and cannot talk about on a personal level. If that means saying “I know we used to rant about management before, but now that I’m in this role I can’t be that sounding board for you” then that’s okay. 

A strong friendship should endure anything, even if it means you have to sit down together and discuss how professional and personal lives have to be separated. 

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