Boss or Friend? Setting Boundaries with Employees

Michael Scott once said, “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”

Michael’s Machiavellian dilemma is one that any manager or executive is likely to face. How do you handle interactions with employees that you’re responsible for managing? Is it ok to be friends with your coworkers?

Friendship between a manager and employee creates a conflict of interest Click To Tweet

After all, interpersonal relationships naturally form when spending 40+ hours per week with the same group of coworkers. And the office culture of today is very different than in years past. Many companies cultivate a relaxed atmosphere with less formal dress codes and more flexible time-off policies.

Technology also makes it easier for employees to work remotely and stay connected 24/7, which blurs the line between home and work – and, in turn, can blur the line between friends and coworkers.

The Friendship Problem

Friendship between a manager and employee inherently creates a conflict of interest. Managers are responsible for evaluating the performance of their team members. They must be unbiased when providing constructive criticism, conducting performance reviews and salary negotiations, mediating conflicts, and even firing or laying off employees.

If personal friendships hinder the manager’s ability to do their job effectively, then the whole company suffers.

Even if a boss believes that they are able to set personal feelings aside, there is often a perception problem.

Even if a boss believes that they are able to set personal feelings aside, there is often a perception problem among other employees. When a manager’s friend gets a raise or promotion, coworkers are bound to question whether that move was out of merit or loyalty. This dynamic can breed rumors and resentment and create a potentially toxic culture.

For a perfect example of how a boss-employee friendship – and Michael Scott’s friendship philosophy – can backfire, look no further than season 4, episode 13 of The Office, where Michael invites Jim and Pam over for what turns out to be a disastrous dinner party where a number of boundaries are crossed.

Setting Boundaries with Employees

Establishing clear boundaries will help ensure that friendly rapport between a manager and employee doesn’t cross the line of professionalism.

Here are a few tips for setting boundaries with employees:

  • Keep socialization to work hours: Grabbing lunch with employees, team happy hours, and office holiday parties are all good for team-building, but avoid one-on-one socializing during off-work hours – going out to a bar on a Saturday night, for example.
  • Avoid T.M.I.: Keep conversations positive and professional. Don’t vent or discuss office politics, and avoid getting into deeply personal information.
  • Lead by example: Managers have to follow the rules and boundaries they’ve established. Modeling appropriate behavior helps managers maintain credibility and makes employees aware of their own behavior.

If you feel that an employee is beginning to cross boundaries, the best thing to do is to have an honest, transparent conversation right away. Clearly identify what behavior is expected of the employee.

Setting boundaries with coworkers doesn’t mean that managers need to be cold or detached from their employees though. Building positive professional relationships is vital for company culture and helps to retain your best talent. And boundaries will help to ensure that those professional relationships stay positive.

Because one thing that we can agree with Michael Scott about is this: “People will never be replaced by machines. In the end, life and business are about human connections.”

People will never be replaced by machines. In the end, life and business are about connection. Click To Tweet

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