Balancing Friendship and Authority: Can You Truly Be Friends with Your Employees?

One of the biggest Catch-22s in business is the age-old question: can you be friends with your employees? And as an extension of that, SHOULD you be friends with your employees? Is it best for them, is it best for you, and is it best for your business?

In this article I’ll take a deep dive into the murky waters of employer-employee friendships, how to support your staff without compromising your objectivity, and ultimately answer the burning question: can your boss be your friend?

For more on this topic, head over to my Diary of an Entrepreneur podcast. I go into detail about some more of the issues surrounding being friends with your boss in Episode 19.

The challenges of being friends with your employees

So, what leads some people to say “never be friends with your boss”? Surely a friendly workplace is a happy and healthy workplace? Well that’s true to an extent, but good internal communications and supportive leadership are not the same thing as friendship, and you should never confuse the two.

Difficulty in maintaining objectivity

Personal relationships do not align well with objective business decisions. From disciplinary procedures, to promotions, to redundancies and more, you need a clear head when choosing who gets what in your organisation. It shouldn’t always be your friends who get the benefits.

Perceptions of favouritism

Leading on from the previous point, things get even more complicated when your employees start to notice favouritism in your decision-making. You’ll lose trust, you may lose discipline among your workforce, and in extreme cases you could find yourself facing formal dispute proceedings.

It’s tough to maintain boundaries

Being friends with your boss blurs the boundaries between superior and subordinate. Some businesses like to operate with a fairly flat hierarchy, but you need to know who’s responsible for what – and who’s accountable for any failures.

Conflicts of interest

Even if you act objectively, your friendships with your employees can create conflicts of interest. For example, in disputes between employees where you would normally be expected to provide leadership and an objective resolution, it’s hard to do that when you’re friends with one employee and not the other.

Personal biases

Who gets that promotion, that juicy commission-making contract or first pick of the new clients? It’s hard to avoid making promises over lunch or in the pub. Try to avoid spending time with individual employees – there are plenty of teambuilding opportunities that don’t put you in an awkward position personally.

Difficulty in giving feedback

Can you be friends with your employees AND tell them when they’re underperforming? Or deny them a pay rise when you know their personal circumstances? Maybe you feel emotionally stable enough to do this, but consider their perspective too: can your boss be your friend if they think you’re bad at your job? It’s a thorny area that’s best avoided.

My thoughts on the phrase “never be friends with your boss”

“Never be friends with your boss” is an adage that many people choose to live by. For us as business leaders, the counterpart would be “never be friends with your employees”. I do think these sentiments are correct, but it’s important not to allow them to be harmful.

In Diary of an Entrepreneur Episode 19 I describe a team get-together with my entire workforce at my content marketing company Stada Media, where I told my employees that I would love to be included in social events and would love to be invited for drinks, but that I would not – and cannot – be their friend.

Growing a business is not a social club; it’s a social contract. My role as business leader is to provide my employees with the tools and the prosperity they need to enjoy their time at work, to gain personal growth and to take home an adequate pay cheque. But I’m also there to make the tough choices, including decisions they will not understand.

That’s the entrepreneur’s burden. You can have a mentor, you can appoint a managing director, but ultimately that responsibility lies with you alone, and you cannot allow friendships with your subordinates to cloud your judgment.

How to find a healthy balance in relationships with your employees

So if being friends with your boss is not appropriate, you might be wondering how you can run a happy, healthy workplace. This is where some managers make big mistakes, going way too far in the other direction. Authority and authoritarianism are not the same thing.

Let’s ask a very slightly different question: can you be friendly with your employees? And here I think, as long as everybody knows where they stand, absolutely yes you can. That’s why I’ve never regretted telling my employees that I will never directly be their friend, but I am here to support them and I do want to be involved.

One way to find that balance more easily is to appoint a managing director. I’ve talked about this in the past, and why you should fire yourself as soon as possible. Take yourself out of the hierarchy and have your workforce report to an MD, who can deal with the day-to-day discipline, leaving your door always open to any other concerns.

Final thoughts

The short answer to “can your boss be your friend?” is no. It’s that simple. But you can lead with compassion and communication, and you can still socialise – you don’t have to rule from an ivory tower. It’s all about balance, which is a theme you’ll find again and again throughout my Diary of an Entrepreneur video series.

If you’re still struggling to find that balance, or you’d like to talk more about how to strike the right relationships with your employees – or how to hire an MD to take some of that burden away from you – please get in touch and I’ll be happy to share more of my own experiences with you.