Should a business owner be friends with their employees?
No, is the answer most HR experts give to that question. In fact, many of them seem to be saying HELL NO.
Their concerns revolve around favoritism, being uncomfortable disciplining friends, blah, blah, blah. I get all that. But does that mean I should ignore researcher Brené Brown’s connection advice from my prior post? You might recall that she said this…
“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”
So connections are the best thing since sliced bread, but, as a business owner, I must avoid them at work. Refuse to connect with the folks I spend 8 to 10 hours with every day. The folks that I hand-picked because they share my reason for getting out of bed each morning, and share my values, and share my behavioral preferences.
Instead of connecting with these chosen people, I should draw an imaginary line between myself and them.
That sounds crazy, wouldn’t I be better off with more friends at work - not fewer?
Here’s a quote from a 2015 TIME article on friendship
“According to data from the General Social Survey the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled in recent decades. “Zero” is also the most common response when people are asked how many confidants they have, the GSS data show. And adult men seem to be especially bad at keeping and cultivating friendships.”
Note that this data is over 10 years old and that the trend was negative - people’s trusted networks were shrinking. And, as best I can tell, this data includes family members, so there is very little room in the numbers for work friends. Also, note that they muddy the waters by talking about confidants rather than friends. And it’s not clear exactly how they define the two.
Contrast this GSS study to one done by Gallup that was referenced in this 2015 FORBES article.
“Our relationships with our co-workers greatly impact our work lives: more than 60% of employees who have between six and 25 friends at work admit to loving their companies (compared to the 24% who don't have friends at work).”
So one article suggests that it’s a miracle if you have one friend / confidant in the whole wide world. Another has folks counting them by the dozens and concluding that these connections are the key to loving their workplace.
It’s obvious that these two studies are defining the word friend in very different ways. So I’d like to come up with a consistent friend definition to make sure we’re talking apples to apples. Then we can decide whether a business owner should have friends at work.
WHAT IS A FRIEND?
I looked at about 20 friend definitions and they’re all over the map. So I decided to roll my own.
In fact, I rolled two of them.
FRIEND - someone you have commonalities with, enjoy being around, are loyal to, and trust. You’re comfortable sharing non-confidential work-related stuff with them, as well as entry-level personal stuff. These folks could number in the dozens.
CONFIDANT - someone you have commonalities with, enjoy being around, are loyal to, and trust. You are comfortable sharing pretty much all topics with them, including deeper personal stuff. This person would rate one level below a spouse and would, by definition, not be an amorous partner. Also, based on the research I shared, this person would be a rare creature. Numbering somewhere between zero and two or three - including family.
I broke these definitions the way I did because this seems to be the line where HR folks start to get the willies. They’ve had to intervene in too many CONFIDANT relationships gone bad.
DRAWING THE LINE
So where should you draw the line between you and your employees?
I know that I've done my best work when surrounded by FRIENDS, so I believe owners can be FRIENDS with employees.
On the other hand, you should think long and hard before becoming a CONFIDANT with an employee. Not that I believe you must stop yourself if that type of relationship is developing. It’s just that you have to accept the risks that go along with it.
All relationships are subject to explosions, but it can be especially messy when you’re the boss. And I’m not talking about illicit office affairs here. That’s a whole different category of stupid. If you play in that arena you're going to get burned and you deserve it.
I’m talking about a non-amorous CONFIDANT relationship. One where your buddy knows exactly how you feel about other employees potential. And might even know the stuff that sits inside folks personnel files - even though only you should know this information.
If you’ve confided this kind of info and the relationship goes bad - let's say you pissed off your CONFIDANT by choosing not to promote them. Things could get ugly fast. This stuff makes for great efficiency-eroding gossip, can slam your credibility, and can even cause legal problems. So tread carefully. Make sure the positive aspects and camaraderie of the connection outweigh the risks.
MANAGING FRIENDS: AN ARROGANT NON-CONCERN
An unnamed HR blog suggested not being friends with employees because you can’t be a friend and a mentor / role model / coach.
In my eyes, this warning reeks of arrogance.
Who decided that a business owner is, by default, more of a role model than Billy in the mailroom? You might know more about running a business, but maybe Billy knows more about being a real person. Treating people with respect. Listening. I would argue, given the critical nature of culture, that, in a case like this, Billy should be mentoring Mr. or Mrs. CEO.
Bottom line, role models can, and should, work in both directions.
Thinking otherwise is old style command and control crap. Where bosses were called SUPERIORS. Only knuckleheads, who rely on positional power to feed their egos, still believe that garbage.
MANAGING FRIENDS: REAL CONCERNS
There are real issues involved in managing friends.
First off, you’ll be accused of playing favorites. True, but that’s gonna happen whether you befriend employees or not.
Remember all the WRONG STORIES stuff that I shared back in posts 28 through 33? When things don’t go folks way they’re gonna find a cause. And the most common cause is 1) the boss is stupid or 2) the boss is favoring his or her pet. So whether you have a BFF at work that you favor, or not, you’re going to be accused of playing favorites. So this isn’t a reason to avoid having FRIENDS at work, it’s just the reality of life at the top of the org chart.
Next comes a tougher issue. The fact that it’s hard to sit face-to-face with a friend and tell them they aren’t getting it done.
I’ve had good friends that worked for me screw up at critical times. And yes, this led to some dreadfully uncomfortable conversations. But we got through them, and things got back to normal in short order.
I’ve also been on the other side of the table. I recall a heated argument I had with my bosses boss many years ago. I refused to yield and was disciplined and ordered to leave his office. Something about my smart mouth.
Oh well, stuff happens. We got along perfectly fine going forward.
Discipline issues and differences of opinion are going to happen. And yes, it’s a little tougher between friends. But do you really think the answer is to become a distant / impersonal figure with some imaginary no-friend line drawn between you? A line which is often interpreted as “he’s too good for us”.
To me, that sure sounds like a shitty way to spend 10 hours a day.
(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)
I’m not suggesting that you must be FRIENDS with your employees. If it doesn’t happen it doesn’t happen. I am suggesting that you not build an artificial wall between yourself and the troops. Don’t purposefully isolate yourself from the advantages of connection that Brené Brown shared with us earlier in this post.
Instead, maybe you should just...
If you do those three things, you'll find yourself surrounded by folks that FIT your culture. And you’ll likely end up calling quite a few of them FRIENDS.
And if you’re ever fortunate enough to be part of an amazing environment like that - some neat stuff can happen.
I know because it happened to me once. I was part of a company where the owners did a great job of assembling a team of people that FIT. And the results were life changing - both personally and professionally.
And if you prefer to keep score in dollars and cents, that part worked out pretty well too. In just a few years the company went from zip to a value just north of nine hundred million dollars.
I’ll tell you that story next time...
***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.