Should A Supervisor Be Friends With Their Direct Report?
Updated: Mar 2
The relationship between a manager and his/her/their direct report is one of formal authority, but the fact is that there are often friendships among employees in the workplace, including between supervisors and the people they manage. One example of this is an employee who is promoted into a position where they now manage former peers. Another example is a manager that develops a friendship with a direct report. It's crucial to remember that it is the manager's responsibility to ensure that relationships with direct reports do not lead to conflicts or problems in the workplace.
Note: here I'm talking about managers and reports that socialize as friends outside of work, as opposed to the situation where they are friendly and may from time to time have a work lunch or happy hour together - the latter is always good in my opinion!
One potential problem with being friends with someone that reports to you is the possibility that an outside-of work fight or disagreement could affect the professional relationship. This could be anything from not liking the way that someone treats waitstaff, to disagreeing with a choice in a significant other, to a serious fight about whether a particular quarterback was involved in deflating footballs.
Relationship issues aside, many managers worry about being friends with their direct report for fear it will subvert their ability to maintain proper boundaries. Some managers take the opposite view, arguing that it's easier to maintain a professional relationship with a friend than someone you don't know well, and that the knowledge about a person gained from friendship outweighs the potential risks.
One particularly difficult situation is when a manager who is friends with a direct report has to deliver a negative performance evaluation. Another issue is the perception among other employees that the person that's friends with the manager is getting special treatment.
I don't really see many companies forbidding platonic friendships between a manager and an employee, but I do think it's incumbent on the manager to maintain proper boundaries. Indeed, maintaining a clear distinction between personal feelings and business behavior is important to avoiding the potential management problems caused by friendships. While this may require some uncomfortable conversations, especially when managers find themselves less than happy with their friends' performance or conduct, it is nevertheless an important skill to have in order to prevent interpersonal conflicts from arising between employees who are friends outside of work.
It should go without saying that business decisions should never be made based on friendship alone and any employee who tries to pressure a manager into making such a decision should be reported immediately.
Here are some tips to successfully navigating a friendship between a manager and their direct report:
Establish rules and boundaries early on. This is equally important whether the friendship starts to develop after one of the employees is already in a management role, or whether one of two co-workers gets promoted into a management role.
Avoid office gossip. This is especially important for those friends who tend to talk about everything and anything.
Keep the relationship professional at work. A manager should treat everyone at work the same, avoiding behavior that could be construed as preferential treatment. Example: always buying a coffee for their friend but not anyone else on the team.
If things go sour, the manager needs to have a frank discussion about the nature of the friendship and how it's impacting work. This is not an easy conversation to have but it's better to do it sooner rather than later.
Managers must remember that their direct report is still their subordinate and should always behave in a professional manner. This includes following all company policies and procedures, even if you don't agree with them.
We all spend a lot of time at work, and have relationships with people we work with is human. But we also need to think about the impact these relationships have on our jobs and companies from an organizational standpoint.