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Should managers or bosses be friends with their subordinates?

Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner hired his longtime close friend Michael Ovitz to the number two position at the company. In two month’s time, their business and personal relationships went completely sour and ended in a severance package that cost Disney an estimated $140 million followed by litigation suits from its shareholders (Janove).

Carly Drum, managing director at Drum Associates, an executive search firm in Manhattan, had set some guidelines when she hired her good friend and former client Kristin Shannon as the firm’s managing director of operations and successfully made their new relationship work for the best interest of the company (DiProperzio, 2008). Similar situations are replicated many times over in organizations, at times with a certain twist, as when longtime co-workers and office buddies suddenly found themselves in situations when one becomes a boss to the other.

There is really nothing extraordinary with becoming friends with co-workers; however, when the situation is such that you become boss to your friend, it becomes an altogether different ballgame because both the playing field and relationship are no longer equal or of the same level. Should managers or bosses then take friends to work for them or be friends with their subordinates?

Some point out that managers may find it difficult to act successfully as head of an organization when they are friends with their subordinates because conflicts can set in when the gaps start to surface between the manager’s expectations and that of an employee friend’s performance, attendance or conduct which eventually may affect their personal and working relationship and the organization as a whole.

Others think that in general, becoming too buddy-buddy with subordinates is a bad idea as a manager may be placed in a position where he can be taken advantage of, abused or lose respect from employees (Dylan, 2008). Francie Dalton, a consultant specializing in workplace behaviors says it is not a good idea for three reasons: (1) at best it will inhibit, or at worst, it will erode the performance review process; (2) others may assume that the boss is playing favorites; and (3) bosses may look immature to their peers (Webb, 2006).

The goal of this essay is to persuade managers and supervisors that indeed being friends to subordinates may present some degree of complexity to relations as well as conflict in the workplace but when handled properly, it can also work to further strengthen the personal friendship while at the same time work positively for the benefit and best interests of the organization. The philosophy here is that people are generally happier when they like their colleagues and their bosses.

If an organization functions more like a circle of friends, those within the sphere – both boss and employees – are naturally inclined to work harder and live up to each other’s expectations. Further, the boss becomes more attuned with employees’ strengths, weaknesses, challenges and personal crises which will enable him to manage effectively. Managers who are friends to their employees enjoy strong, positive relationship with their staff. They know their families, interests and goals in life and as such understand better what motivates them, giving them considerable advantage in managing their people.

The approach to workplace motivation may be handled in many different ways for each business; however, the responsibility of its incorporation amongst the workforce generally lies within the immediate supervisor or manager of the employee. Employees who are strongly connected to their supervisors/managers are more likely to work longer hours and be loyal to the company (allbusiness. com). Paul Lawrence Vann in his book, “Living on Higher Ground”, noted that employees do not leave their jobs because of work but because of poor relationships with their supervisors.

When an atmosphere of friendship permeates an organization, it is easier to build trust and openness and engage the efforts of employees towards collaboration. As a manager, there is very little you can do on your own. Open communication is a sign of trust, and if employees feel their boss has implicit trust in them and their abilities, they will be more motivated at giving out the best possible work to drive the business forward (allbusiness. com). Supervisors become more accessible to their employees when the lines of communication are open and trusted.

A manager needs to engage his employees’ participation and support in how to map the company’s business path by inviting them to share their suggestions and concerns and engaging them in discussions. A manager who knows how to lead and inspire is able to breed collaboration, both inside and outside the business. Collaboration brings out new ideas and innovations to an organization. The best managers in the world are not only experts in systems, processes, and technical competencies (Rath, 2006).

Employees want and need managers who care about their lives beyond the workplace, one who can be genuinely sensitive as a friend especially in times of crisis. Gallup in its survey found that people who said that their supervisors or someone in their place of work care for them are: (1) more likely to stay with the organization; (2) have more engaged customers; and (3) be more productive. A boss being friends with subordinates is a good thing because it allows the subordinates to be themselves at the workplace, which contributes to higher productivity (Vann).

Thus, managers who want to have happier and productive employees should consider developing strong friendships at the office with their subordinates. Employees who have a close friendship with their managers are more than 2. 5 times more likely to be satisfied with their job (Rath, 2006). Indeed, managers or bosses can start or continue to be friends with the people they supervise but it is important to ascertain first the foundation of the friendship, especially whether there is common ground for carrying the relationship forward.

It is also equally important that the connection must have been built upon positive shared values so that the relationship can grow to be productive and beneficial to the organization. Nonetheless, managers must take a careful, cautious approach, and constantly be aware of the possible pitfalls. Jill Geisler (2001) provides the following tips for new bosses supervising their old friends: 1. Always be fair to all employees and colleagues. Ask for mutual understanding from the start and never let the friendship stand in the way of your judgments.

2. To be sociable but using utmost discretion 3. Become more sensitive to the feelings of others and remain open-minded. A concerned boss is forever remembered by people in crisis and is open to listen to criticisms and suggestions. 4. To be discreet about confidential information related to work. In time, a manager will find that the good relationship he has established with subordinate friends would have gradually evolved to reflect his new role as leader.

In the process, he may lose some valued subordinate friends but whomever remains will expectedly be those who are friends in the real sense, who fully understand the nature and importance of his leadership and the best interest of the organization. Overall, he stands to gain more on both ways: on the personal level through strengthened relationships with his employees and at the organizational level through a loyal, committed and productive workforce.


Allbusiness. com. Boss or friend? The importance of a clearly defined working relationship. Retrieved on August 21, 2008, from http://www. html DiProperzio, L. What happens when your buddy becomes your boss? New York Post (31 March 2008) Retrieved on August 21, 2008, from http://www. nypost. com/seven/03312008/jobs/friends_with_benefits_104382. htm Dylan, M. Socializing with subordinates.

Office Politics (30 June 2008). Retrieved on August 21, 2008, from http://office-politics. suite101. com/article. cfm/socializing_with_subordinates Geisler. J. (6 August 2001) Can the boss be a friend? Retrieved on August 21, 2008, from http://www. poynter. org/column. asp? id=34&aid=2408 Janove, J. FOB: Friend of boss.

Management Tools. Retrieved on August 21, 2008, from, http://www. bullardlaw. com/assets/documents/jjanoveHRMagjune05. pdf Rath, T. Vital friends: The people you can’t afford to live without. The Gallup Press (August 2006). Retrieved on August 21, 2008, from https://www. vitalfriends. com/library/pdf/VitalFriendsMediaKit. pdf Rath, T. Vital friends: Can employees be friends with the boss? The Gallup Press (August 2006). Retrieved on August 21, 2008, from http://gmj. gallup. com/content/23893/Can-Employees-Be-Friends-With-the-Boss. aspx Vann, P. L. Living on Higher Ground. Laurel Wreath Publishing, Fort Washington