Most of us spend more of our waking hours in the workplace than at home. When your colleagues’ faces are the ones you see for 40-plus hours a week, the question instinctively arises: is it ever wise to befriend a boss? When that person has the power to fire you, promote you, refuse you a raise, favorite you, or make your job miserable or potentially really great, it’s complicated. Are workplace friendships career savvy or suicide?
Although we’d all like to think the work world is a truly egalitarian system, a boss who considers you a friend is more likely to trust you and most importantly, promote you or pick you for high priority projects. After all, it’s human nature to be more generous with friends. But then there is the issue of favoritism, and your boss might be more sensitive to it, thus not considering you for promotions you deserve.
Angie Herbers, a professional HR consultant, thinks, that being friends with higher-ups isn’t that big of a deal, and she actually encourages it. “People like to work with people they like, and if you can develop a friendship with your boss, you’ll want to be more productive. You’ll want to worker harder, and you’ll probably want to stay at the company.”
But it might not be all that rosy. Having personal relationships at work can backfire. According to Michael H. Smith Ph.D., “The workplace can be a cauldron of competing interests including resource competition, alliances, dependencies, and personal dysfunctions… before you become vulnerable, scope out the territory.” Your professional persona and non-work personality may be quite different—and for good reason.
So how do you know when it’s a good idea and how to navigate the friendship-boss relationship? Here is a framework to get you started.
Were you friends before you started working together? If a friendship predates a new reporting relationship, you have to maintain some degree of role clarity. Self-awareness, on both sides, is key. Often times it’s easier to befriend a boss, because the role distinction is already in place. Follow your instincts on what it truly comfortable.
Does it feel authentic? Do you want to be friends because you share common interests, or do you think the friendship might benefit you in business? This is pretty clear-cut, if you have a natural affinity, and want to have a social bond, it might be worth pursuing. Act authentically and proceed slowly.
Keep it as uncomplicated as possible. When speaking about aspects of the job that cross over into advice, make an effort to articulate the lines you’ve drawn in the sand. For example, “I’m speaking as your friend here…” or “As your employee, I’m telling you…” It may seem odd at first, but it makes a clear distinction and is much easier to maintain normalcy in both aspects of your relationship. Having a positive, constructive, and trusting relationship with your boss is always a good thing, and everyone should work toward that.