Home Professionalisms The Friend Zone – The Dangers Of Treating Employees Like Pals

The Friend Zone – The Dangers Of Treating Employees Like Pals


by Brian Fielkow, author of “Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture

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“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 your employees’ personal lives is just good management. Our employees are people with lives outside of the office. Being aware of what is going on at home is important, as it can impact your employee’s professional life, too. So 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.


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 your 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 your chummy pals have better access to you than the rest of the team and that they’re more likely to receive special treatment (i.e., deadline extensions, time out of the office, etc.).

Playing Politics.

Friendships make it more difficult to execute your duties as a manager. Imagine if a subordinate starts to take advantage of the relationship, showing up late to work, missing deadlines. Will you be prepared to act or will they get away with things that no one else does?

Create Separation.

You must be able to separate friendships from the execution of your duties. When the performance of one of your friends is declining, or your friend is taking advantage of the relationship and getting away with things that no one else is, you must be prepared to act. The closer friends you are – maybe your families and spouses are friends – the more difficult this can become. However, your role as a manger is to handle these sorts of issues when they arise.

Friendships are going to form. Let’s accept reality. But, once they do, it’s all about managing them. We will have 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:

Protect Your People.

Safeguard a level playing field. Make yourself equally accessible to all of your team members. Ensure that treatment is fair and consistent and avoid talking with your friends about business issues that they otherwise would not have access to.

Avoid Forced Fun.

If you’re passionate about golf, roller skating, professional wrestling or anything else, don’t make that the key for employees to access you. Appreciate that your workplace has diverse people with diverse interests. Don’t force your personal passions on the team and don’t make that the only (or best) way for them to access you.

Set Boundaries.

If a friendship really grows, then have a conversation. Set mutually agreed upon boundaries. If you’re really friends, the boundaries will be accepted. If they are not accepted, then you may be being taken advantage of.

Share the Wealth.

You don’t have to be “friends” to have a genuine interest in what’s going on with ALL of your team members outside of work. Showing a personal interest in your employees’ lives can help you 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, be aware of when that personal interaction journeys into “The Friend Zone,” and have a clear plan in place to manage it. Ignoring this is sure to damage your business and even your career.


Brian Fielkow

Executive Leadership Advisor, Brian Fielkow, J.D., is the author of”By Brian L. Fielkow Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture“, a how-to guide for CEOs based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience in both public and privately held companies. Brian is the President of Jetco Delivery, a multimillion-dollar logistics company specializing in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight.