Employee or Friend? How to Maintain Boundaries with the People Who Work for You You want to cultivate an amiable atmosphere at work with your team. But sometimes, the line can get blurry between "friendly" and "friends." Here's how to keep roles clear and relationships healthy.

By Emily Reynolds Bergh

Key Takeaways

  • Getting too close to subordinates can create personal issues that interfere with professionalism.
  • Employees as friends can actually erode respect and breed favoritism.
  • Work boundaries are in place for a reason.
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I haven't been shy about what a flawed boss I've been as I've slowly and painstakingly learned how to run my own PR firm over the last 15 years. At worst, I could be totally ineffective by allocating work assignments with insufficient direction or overcommitting my staff to unrealistic client expectations. At best, I could be clumsy in my leadership attempts, just winging things I had absolutely no idea how to do.

In the beginning, when I was putting together a skeleton crew, I sometimes hired friends willing to step up to bat for me, and later, I found myself becoming friends with the people I'd hired, in awe of their talent and grateful for their contributions. In both scenarios, by working with people I considered my friends, I encountered some sensitive issues I wasn't sure how to resolve.

Related: How to Build a Positive Relationship With Your Boss and Colleagues

6 lessons on 'friends' vs. 'friendly'

I've now got a top-notch team in place that I really value and like — both for their incredible productivity and for their thoughtfulness as human beings. To keep them on my team, though — to keep their skills and insights working on behalf of our joint career goals — certain boundaries should be in place in terms of how friendly a business owner should get with their staff. Here are some of the "rules of the ring" I picked up as I learned the ropes of boundary-setting with my staff.

1. Prioritize your role as a leader first. I'd never advise anyone to hide their authentic self or to fabricate an aura of aloofness just to situate yourself at the top of the org chart. But no one wants a driver who's crying at the wheel, either. What I mean by this is that I can't — and shouldn't — let my emotions show too much at work, regardless of what I may be going through personally.

It's scary for your staff to think you might not have it together and might not be thinking clearly enough to make informed, objective decisions that will affect them. Wearing your heart on your sleeve too transparently at work corrodes the trust your people have in you to lead them fairly and effectively. When I call to mind business owners who inspire me the most, they hold their own in the face of stress and calamity, wisely maintaining the distinction between their professional life and their personal life when interacting with their employees.

Related: How Leaders Can Create a Company Culture that Prioritizes Mental Health

2. Don't get overly involved in employees' personal lives. I've made the mistake of getting too engaged with my team members' lives, and maybe you have too. The danger here is that it goes both ways — when an employee would confide in me about their dating life, for example, I found myself reciprocating in kind. And in detail! That wasn't cool.

On the contrary, instead of bonding us, as I believed at the time, it blemished my team's respect for me and, ultimately, my own self-respect. Nowadays, I carry myself more firmly as a leader, understanding that I am the founder of an enterprise upon which my people stand and depend. I shouldn't be the first person they go to to cry in their beer with after work. I make it a point to remain approachable but to limit oversharing; it's my job to keep the wheels moving, not to be my employees' life coach.

Related: Stop Splitting Yourself in Half: Seek Out Work-Life Boundaries, Not Balance

3. You can socialize outside of work but do so responsibly. You've been invited to join the crew for happy hour, and you don't want to be rude by rejecting the invitation. So, you sometimes say yes … and inevitably, someone drinks too much and embarrasses themselves.

That someone can never be you. Never. Not at your own company holiday party at your house. Not at the company picnic because the heat went to your head. Not late at night at the company retreat with only one team member with whom you're sharing a room. This one is a hard line in the sand, not just a helpful suggestion: You can't party with your people. You can go to the party, but you have to preserve your professionalism at all times if you want to remain their boss and not their buddy.

4. Avoid favoritism at all costs. Even if parents do have favorites, they can't say so, right? The same holds for your team. If you find yourself particularly drawn to an employee — the two of you just click, and you'd love to be friends with them outside of work — that simply can't be part of a just and equitable workplace.

This doesn't mean you can't be friends on your own time, but you'll want to tread very carefully here. Word of outside activities with only select team members should not get back to the team at large; Molly's funny story about what happened at your Super Bowl get-together can't make it into Monday morning's meeting with Mitch; and you cannot attend Joelle's wedding without also attending Jonathan's. Favoritism (or even perceived favoritism) is a pestilence that can infect your group. Stop it before it's ever unleashed by playing fair and playing even across the board.

5. Have empathy … but don't touch. I'm a touchy-feely person. I just am. I kiss cheeks, I rub arms, I squeeze into the same chair with people I adore. But I've learned I have to rein in this instinct when I'm at work. True, the remote nature of my business has made this a lot easier, but it's simply a no-no in today's culture to actually lay hands on people who work for you, even if there's little chance of them misinterpreting your gesture.

Instead, I've discovered how to show empathy and support without physical contact. Steady eye contact. A genuine, lingering smile. A sympathy card or bouquet of flowers. A warmly worded email. It's okay to care and to show you care — just do so in today's preferred "contactless" environment.

6. Know when it's okay to cross the boundaries. All this said, when a team member of mine loses a loved one, there's no way I'm not hugging them at the funeral. And when a team member has a baby, nothing in the world is going to stop me from sending a personalized present for the little munchkin!

Basically, there are lines in place to maintain decorum, dignity and appropriateness with your staff. But it is okay to draw outside the lines when the situation calls for it and when you want your employees to feel both your friendliness and friendship. Trust yourself to judge what is safe to do and what is likely iffy to do. After all, your good judgment has gotten you to boss status in the first place!
Emily Reynolds Bergh

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Founder at R Public Relations Firm

Emily Reynolds Bergh — vintage-shoe hoarder, cycling junkie, & lover of pink drinks — is a marketing & PR pro with 15+ years of experience under her belt. Now the founder & owner of the award-winning R Public Relations based in New York, she’s been featured in numerous publications & podcasts.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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