Keep Out of the Friend Zone 

by Brian Fielkow

beware-friend-zone“Keep your work life and business life separate.” “Don’t get involved in your employees’ personal matters.” “There is no place for friendships in the office.” This is all age-old advice, but it is out of sync with what really happens in our workplaces. Friendships form in the workplace and it is, at times, impossible for employees to leave personal issues at home.

As business leaders, we have to recognize that work and personal lives intersect often. Moreover, simply because we are in a position of authority does not somehow make us immune to this intersection. But, as leaders, we have a special responsibility to treat workplace friendships deliberately.

Knowing about our employees’ personal lives is just good management because what is happening in their lives outside of the office can impact their professional life, too. But, while we have to be in tune with our employees’ personal lives, we also have to be equally aware of the drawbacks of this “friend zone.” Friendships that develop among key executives and their employees can negatively impact business and professionalism. So be mindful. When friendships form, here’s what executives should be exceptionally watchful of and how they should manage their way through it.

The Friend Zone and Its Consequences 

Cliques Are Corrosive. Allowing cliques to develop is dangerous. When a group of employees start going out to lunch, grabbing drinks after work, gossiping and excluding others, the rest of the team starts to feel like anonymous, unconnected, second-class citizens — some of whom might be a company’s best workers. Having an office that tolerates cliques will drive these superstars out the door.

This Isn’t a Country Club. If overt friendships develop, perceptions of an uneven playing field can fester. Employees “on the outs” start to feel like the boss’s chummy pals have better access to him or her than the rest of the team and that they’re more likely to receive special treatment (e.g., deadline extensions, time out of the office, etc.).

Playing Politics. Friendships make it more difficult for a person to execute his or her duties as a manager. Imagine if a subordinate starts to take advantage of the relationship, showing up late to work, missing deadlines — will that manager be prepared to act or will the employee get away with things that no one else does?

Create Separation. Those in leadership positions must be able to separate friendships from the execution of their duties. When the performance of a friend is declining, or the friend is taking advantage of the relationship and getting away with things that no one else is, that boss must be prepared to act. The closer the friendship — maybe families and spouses are friends — the more difficult this can become. However, one’s role as a manger is to handle these sorts of issues when they arise.

Keeping Clear of the Friend Zone

Friendships are going to form. Let’s accept reality. But, once they do, it’s all about managing them. We will have a different level of personal chemistry with different employees, and friendships may form with some and not others. Our duty to the organization is paramount. We must make extra effort to create a level playing field. We must be equally accessible to all of our team and ensure that treatment is fair and consistent. Here’s how.

Safeguard a Level Playing Field. A manager should make himself or herself equally accessible to all the team members. To ensure that treatment is fair and consistent, the boss should avoid talking with friends about business issues that they otherwise would not have access to.

Avoid Forced Fun. Appreciating that a workplace has diverse people with diverse interests, a boss should avoid forcing his or her passion about golf, roller skating, professional wrestling or anything else on the team, and also avoid making it the only (or best) way for employees to access him or her.

Set Boundaries. If a friendship really grows, it’s important to have a conversation to set mutually agreed upon boundaries. If it’s truly a friendship, the boundaries will be accepted. If they are not accepted, it may be that the boss is being taken advantage of.

Share the Wealth. A boss doesn’t have to be “friends” to have a genuine interest in what’s going on with all the team members outside of work. Showing a personal interest in employees’ lives can help a boss be a better manager. For example, knowing what’s going on with them personally might explain a disruption in performance and allow for faster resolution.

As leaders, we must know what is going on with our employees personally to some degree. Showing an interest is the same as showing respect. However, it’s important be aware when personal interaction journeys into “The Friend Zone,” and to have a clear plan in place to manage it. Ignoring this could damage one’s business and even one’s career.

Corporate culture and executive management advisor Brian Fielkow, J.D., is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture, a comprehensive guide for building strategic company culture that’s based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience in both public and privately held companies. Brian Fielkow is the owner and president of Jetco Delivery, a Houston-based logistics company specializing in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight — an industry often cited as the backbone of America’s economy. 

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