How to be friends while maintaining professionalism in the workplace

Lots of problems can arise from being too pally with your staff. But it is possible to be both a boss and a friend to your staff. Our regular columnist Alan Price of BrightHR explains.

friendly with employees professional


Believe it or not, it is possible for supervisors and managers to be friends with their staff. But there are important boundaries you should put in place to make sure your relationships with staff—and especially those who report into you—stay professional.

Here are essential tips to help you be friendly with your staff while maintaining a professional relationship…

Be friendly but have boundaries

Friendships don’t need to stop just because you’re the boss or you manage people. But they should be regulated.

Setting the right boundaries for friendships from the get-go will put you on the right path towards a successful working relationship with your team that’s devoid of any awkward tensions or toxicity.

It’s a tough line to walk but getting it right will improve your work relationships. Ways to set boundaries include making sure you treat all your colleagues and team members fairly.

If you’re good friends with someone on your team, it’s easy to fall into the trap of preferential treatment, whether unconsciously or consciously. For one, other members of your team may feel like you’re treating them differently which can lead to accusations of favouritism, which can escalate in extreme cases. Employers, managers. and leaders should consciously avoid treating staff differently or they may face grievances and claims of unfair or constructive dismissal and discrimination.

Always remember: if you have to make a difficult decision about an employee you’ve grown close to, this could impact your work or cloud your ability to make the fairest judgement.

Keep it professional outside of work too

A good piece of advice for when you’re outside of work with colleagues who report into you is to remember to never say anything you wouldn’t say inside an office in front of other colleagues. Think carefully about the kinds of conversations you strike up in a work environment—and yes, that extends to the Christmas party…

For example, some topics you would freely discuss with your friends outside of work are best avoided in the workplace. Prevent getting involved in gossip for starters. Make sure you shut conversations down that veer into this territory and if you’re a manager, ensure your team know that any inappropriate gossiping will be taken seriously and fully investigated.

Workplace socials are a great way to bond with your team but having the emotional maturity to know when it’s OK to join in and when your team might need a break from having their boss, leader or manager present is important.

From a team-building perspective, it’s important to have people of all roles and areas of the business present and socialising, but it is still advisable if you’re a manager or a leader of a team to let your team socialise without you once in a while.

Recognise not everyone wants to be friends with the boss and that’s OK

Respecting the fact that your level or position might get in the way of some of your work relationships is important. You can’t always be friends with everyone, and you should never force a relationship with your employees or colleagues.

Hierarchy can put a strain on work relationships for some people and that’s OK. Lots of people keep their personal and professional lives very separate and whilst they may well be civil with you at work, they may not want to overshare with you.

Understand that shifting work dynamics can impact your ability to make friends

A time when someone may find balancing workplace friendships the most challenging is a sudden promotion into a management role from a role where they worked peer-to-peer with someone.

Suddenly managing someone you’re already friends with can be even more challenging. Especially if the relationship blossomed while you were on the same level or working the same role.

Find a professional way to acknowledge the step up in your role and what this may mean for your relationship. Have an honest conversation about your new role and the new responsibilities that come with it and lay new ground rules for your relationship.

It may feel uncomfortable at first but if they’re a team player they should recognise that your new role comes with a different dynamic and that often your performance and success in that role is judged on your ability to manage relationships with others.

You can form connections with people without overstepping professional boundaries or compromising work-related responsibilities. Simply by being friendly but having boundaries, avoiding workplace gossip or drama, and being honest and open with people. And by doing so, you can inspire your team and foster a work environment that is both productive and enjoyable for everyone involved.

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