Should you be friends with your staff?

Friendly workplaces make for more effective teams, but perceptions of favouritism can be office poison, says Lee Biggins.

by Lee Biggins
Last Updated: 19 Jul 2016
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It’s an issue frequently faced by business owners: is it acceptable to be friends with your staff? And as your business continues to grow and the team expands, how do you draw the line between being friends with your employees and simply being friendly?

Starting your own business usually means that you’ll be working with a small team for long hours, often in close quarters, enabling friendships to blossom and making it easier to become a close-knit team.

When I first started my business, we would often work late into the evening, chatting and getting to know each other.

While this can often help to improve motivation and morale in the early days of a new venture, the reality is that these friendships have the potential to become an issue further down the line, especially as more staff come on board and the business grows.

It’s important to put boundaries in place, and ensure that you’re on the right side of the friends vs. colleagues debate.

For example, as a business owner you should take an interest in your employees’ lives. Perhaps one has just got married, or maybe another has just had a baby. Passing on your congratulations and showing your interest is important, and can help your staff to feel valued.

But, make sure you’re consistent - if you’re only interested in the same few employees, it’s likely to be noticed, and you run the risk of starting favouritism rumours or hurting feelings.

If you have struck up a friendship with some of your employees, be aware that this could have an effect on the way that they’re treated in the office. If they’re often late, miss deadlines or come to meetings unprepared, the rest of the team might feel uncomfortable flagging this behaviour.

Knowing that their underperforming colleagues are friends with the boss can lead to assumptions that any poor behaviour won’t be reprimanded, or that you’ll automatically side with those who are slacking, simply because you’re friends outside of office hours.

Unfortunately, befriending your employees can sometimes lead to whispers of favouritism. Even if you’re being objective, others may not see it, which could lead to accusations of nepotism. Be very careful to keep your personal relationship separate to your professional one, particularly when it comes to pay rises and appraisals.

To ensure you stay on safe ground, ask yourself the following; would you be able to give a colleague an honest review of their performance, and if needs be, terminate their employment?

If the answer is ‘no’, then it could be time to put some distance between you. By putting boundaries in place, there shouldn’t be any issues in putting the bottom line and wellbeing of your business first.

However, don’t entirely rule out close relationships amongst staff. There are some major business benefits to encouraging friendships at work. Our recent survey reveals that 90.5% of workers believe that it’s important to have friends in the workplace.

Just ensure that output isn’t compromised, especially if you were friends with an employee before they came to work for you. Managed correctly, friends at work can make the office even more enjoyable and give you a boost when you need it most.

Ultimately, a well-bonded and happy workforce is essential for business success, and it’s beneficial for your staff to have close friendships with their colleagues. Workers who get on with the boss are more likely to stay loyal to a company, so holding monthly company lunches or drinks is an effective way to boost morale and socialise with your team.

By expressing a genuine interest in your employees and supporting them where required, you should be able to build up healthy relationships that don’t cross any lines, allowing you to rest assured that you’re running a team of happy staff who won’t take it personally when you put the bottom line first.

'Enjoy workplace friendships for what they are' - Mark Vernon

Unlike the personal kind, workplace relationships are full of ambiguities, says Mark Vernon in this feature from MT's archive.

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