Navigating Workplace Friendships

  • August 27, 2019

  • The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center

Workplace friendships at work may seem like a potential distraction to productivity, but research from Gallup points out that employees who find a best friend at work “are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job.” Workplace friendships clearly have a lot of bonuses. However, when you are the boss, workplace friendships are more complicated. You may consider yourself friends with your employees, but friendships cannot eclipse your responsibilities as a boss. The following list of DO’s and DON’Ts will help leaders navigate workplace relationships.

DO express interest in your staff

It’s important to be professional at work, but professional does not mean cold and distant. Leaders who remain aloof and detached will have a hard time building trust with their employees.When you take the time to get to know a little about your employees—find out what their hobbies are, the names of their pets, their favorite sports team—you are showing you care. Consequently, your staff will feel recognized and more valued.

DON’T show favoritism when navigating workplace friendships

Pretend you have 10 people reporting to you. Chances are that you will connect with one or two of your employees better than the others. You may be tempted to spend more time with the employees you enjoy most, or give more attention to the employees you feel are doing the best job. However, when one employee appears to be receiving perks due to a friendship, colleagues can become jealous and employee morale suffers. According to the article “The Dangers of Playing Favorites at Work,” even “subtle indications of favoritism … can be … frustrating to employees and detrimental to company culture.” The article also states that, “at extremes, favoritism can lead to lawsuits.” As a leader, you must strive to treat all of your employees with the same amount of care and appreciation.

DO respect your employees’ privacy

One of the Service Values at The Ritz-Carlton vows to “protect the privacy” of fellow employees. Your employees may share confidential information with you from time to time. Regardless of whether they are telling you as a friend or as a boss, your role is to practice discretion and honor their trust in you. You must also be understanding—and not take it personally—if employees choose not to connect with you over social media. Some of your staff may prefer to keep their work life and personal life separate.

DON’T forget to ask about challenges

If an employee has shared a personal crisis with you, be sure to follow up and check in with that employee. Expressing concern by asking, “How are you?” can be a great first step, but avoid asking too many questions. You don’t want to seem as if you’re spying or prying. Be sure your employee is aware of any services your organization offers that could be helpful—such as counseling or legal help. Expressing compassion is important and right. However, since you and/or your team will possibly be taking on extra work to support this employee, you have to ensure that you don’t over-extend your staff for the sake of a friendship.

DO remember that you are the boss

Because you are the boss, you have a significant impact on your employees’ careers. Most likely, you are giving them performance reviews, recommending them for promotions and even deciding if they should lose their jobs. It’s important for employees to be in your good graces. Sometimes this means that their praise may not always be completely genuine. While some employees may blatantly “kiss up” to a boss, others may be more covert in their insincerity. You may feel an employee’s friendship is not motivated by ambition or selfishness. Yet in hindsight, you may discover that it was self-serving all along. Leaders can be particularly susceptible to disingenuousness. The “Field Guide to the Social Climber” cites a study that shows, “when you are the object of effusiveness, you fail to recognize the brown-nosing not out of vanity but rather from a desire to be liked and admired.”

DON’T let workplace friendships get in the way of hard conversations

Being a leader means that you need to give feedback, select whom to promote or demote and possibly even lay off or fire an employee. When you become friends with your employees, these difficult conversations become even more challenging. Adding friendship to a work relationship can make accountability more difficult. Leaders who try to sidestep confrontation may dread disciplining friends, and no one wants to be in the position of deciding whether to lay off their friends.

Importance of Relationships

One of the Service Values at The Ritz-Carlton begins, “I build strong relationships….” This includes relationships with customers and colleagues. You can determine the parameters of these relationships. In other words, you may not want to invite employees over for dinner parties. However, it is important to talk and connect with your employees. Building strong relationships at work will create an atmosphere of care, respect and appreciation and will help everyone work together more effectively. ∞

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