Can You Be Friends With Your Boss?
It’s an age-old question: Can managers be friends with their direct reports? On one hand, it’s natural to develop close relationships with people you spend a lot of time with—especially if you’re collaborating on projects, supporting each other during stressful moments, and sharing feedback.
On the other hand, a friendship can make coworkers feel like they’re getting less than preferential treatment compared to the person who’s buddy buddy with the boss. And being objective is far more difficult when you’re friends.
So, whether you’re the employee or the supervisor, here’s how to think about a friendship with the boss.
Situation #1: Friends First
Were you friends—then one of you got promoted? Expecting you to give up the friendship isn’t reasonable. However, some things do have to change.
First, you can’t gripe about your job. Maybe you used to routinely swap complaints whenever you were feeling particularly demoralized or irritated. That’s simply not kosher anymore. It puts the other person in an uncomfortable position and, sometimes, your complaints may concern sensitive information they shouldn’t have.
Second, follow the same rule with office gossip. As tempting as it may be to discuss your colleagues, steer clear. Not only is it unfair to them, but it could lead to unnecessary tension in their life (for example, if you tell your boss Employee A is dating Employee B, he might feel obligated to report that to HR).
Third, be professional in the office. Try to treat your friend like any other manager or report (depending on which you are). In meetings, don’t bring up your fun memories or make inside references. Everyone else will feel awkward and potentially left out, which will breed resentment and frustration. It’s not a productive way to work.
Fourth, extend the invite. You can spend time off the clock with your friend, but try to include your colleagues when you’re leaving from work. Does everyone grab lunch at the same three cafes? Don’t sneak off for a nice meal at a fancy restaurant. Are you heading out for some nachos after work on a Thursday? Invite your coworkers.
Situation #2: Manager and Employee First
If you started to become closer with your report or boss after you got the role, the situation is a little trickier. The power imbalance has always been an aspect of your relationship. Play it safe—and remember that while having a good relationship is helpful, it’s easier to find your true friends elsewhere.
First, set boundaries. Is your employee asking you to get drinks on a Saturday night? Gently say, “I’d love to do lunch, but I think that’s a little outside the lines of our work relationship as long as I’m your boss” (or “as long as I’m your report.”).
This shows what you are and aren’t comfortable with without outright rejecting them. And if you’re not sure what constitutes inappropriate, ask yourself, “Would I feel completely at ease if my boss or coworkers knew about this?” If the answer is “no,” then turn down the invitation.
Second, periodically check in with yourself to ensure that you’re remaining neutral. Have you given your friend any preferential treatment lately?
If you’re the supervisor, that might mean funneling them the best projects or mentioning their name to upper management more than their equally deserving peers. If you’re the report, that could translate to providing them “inside” information about what your team members are doing or saying.
You should nip this behavior in the bud immediately. Fortunately, simply remaining self-aware goes a long way.
Third, work on your desire to be liked. It’s normal to want your friends to enjoy your company and appreciate your personality—but that’s not the end goal of this relationship. At its core, this relationship exists so that you can effectively help your organization succeed. So anytime you’re avoiding an action because you’ll harm the friendship, take a deep breath and force yourself to follow through. That’s your professional obligation.
For instance, if your report turns in poor-quality work, you have to kindly, but firmly, point out the flaws and ask for a better version.
Or if your boss isn’t giving you all the support or resources you need, you have to diplomatically request what you need and explain why.
Sure, it might be unpleasant or weird, but you’re receiving a salary to do your job. Your friendship must take the backseat.
Finally, try to replicate what’s working. Ask yourself, “Which factors led to feelings of mutual respect and appreciation in this relationship? How can I instill those in my other professional relationships? Perhaps you and your report became closer after discussing your favorite books. Try asking your other direct reports about their favorites so you can find common ground with them as well.
Or maybe you and your manager bonded after post-client-meeting lunches where you discussed what went well and where you could improve. Starting doing the same with your other team members (or with future bosses). This will level the playing field and strengthen all of your work ties—not just the ones with your current friend.
Walking the line between friend and employee or boss is incredibly tough. But if you do it right, neither your work nor your relationship will suffer.
About Signature Consultants, LLC
Headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Signature Consultants was established in 1997 with a singular focus: to provide clients and consultants with superior staffing solutions. For the eighth consecutive year, Signature was voted as one of the “Best Staffing Firms to Work For” and is named the 14th Largest IT Staffing Firm in the United States (source: Staffing Industry Analysts). With 26 locations throughout North America, Signature annually deploys thousands of consultants to support, run, and manage their clients’ technology needs. Signature offers IT staffing, consulting, managed solutions, and direct placement services. For more information on the company, please visit www.sigconsult.com.