Being Friends with Subordinates

Conventional management wisdom warns executives against becoming friends with their subordinates.  The primary concerns expressed in this admonition are:  (1) causing the appearance of favoritism and, (2) a possible reluctance to discipline friends.

If you can manage these two concerns, there is no reason why you can't become friends -- even best friends --  with some of your subordinates.

Life is too short to spend 50+ hours a week standing aloof from people you actually like! 

Let's explore each concern one at a time, and I'll advise you how to manage them. 

I've previously blogged on the subject of "fairness" and the perceptions of subordinates.  Human beings seem to have a finely-tuned sensitivity to anything they perceive as "unequal" or "unfair," particularly in the behavior of those in positions of authority.  This capability is great at identifying unequal treatment, and usually interprets anyone getting anything "better" as example of "unfairness."

I'll argue that under this expectation, every supervisor or manager is going to be seen by at least one person working for them as "unfair."  Expectations for "equal treatment" inherent in the perception are virtually impossible to achieve by real human beings.  Sometimes being seen as "unfair" is simply unavoidable, and dealing with that perception is a regular part of the manager's task.

Favoritism occurs when the manager consistently seems to provide beneficial, unequal treatment to one subordinate.  While being perceived as "unfair" may be inevitable, showing favoritism is not.  The trick to avoiding this perception is to "spread around" the "unequal treatment."  Make sure when you treat subordinates unequally, everyone at some point gets a share of the benefits.

If you are friends with a particular employee, you won't be able to hide that fact from the balance of your subordinates.  People will be particularly attentive to how you treat this friend.  To prevent accusations of favoritism, you simply must dole out fewer "unequal benefits" to your friends than you do to the others.  You can address this with the friend directly, explaining how important it is for you to be attentive to this issue.  You have to expect MORE understanding and "give" friend, than you would an average subordinate.  If the employee is truly a friend, they will understand.  If not, they are unworthy of your friendship. 

In many private companies, a son or daughter of the owner is involved in the business.  If there is sensitivity over a friend, it is double for a child.  Yet, this relationship doesn't seem to cause problems as long as the owner clearly expects more performance and provides less "unequal benefit" to the child, than from others.

If it can work there, you can make it work for your personal friendships. 

On the second point -- offering the difficulty of disciplining (or even firing) a friend as a reason to avoid friendships, doesn't make sense to me based on my personal experiences.  I believe this objection is more of a theoretical argument than one born out through examples.  I've always had friends among my subordinates, and have never had any issues in disciplining them, or even firing them, when circumstances warrant.  In fact, it has often actually made the situation easier on both of us, because it allows me to level with the employee to a degree I wouldn't have felt comfortable doing if I was intentionally keeping distance between us. 

In one instance, I had a subordinate-friend who was responsible for a particularly troublesome remote site.  He decided to stick by a manager for that site who ultimately failed.  Because of my close relationship with my subordinate, I was able to warn him that he was putting his own future on the line by continuing to maintain his confidence in the manager.  Yet he stubbornly continued to do so.  When ultimately forced to fire the manager, I ended up demoting my subordinate as well.  While he wasn't happy about the situation, our ongoing dialog on the subject made the reassignment easier for both of us to manage.  

In another instance, I needed to make a decision to reduce headcount in my department by two direct reports.  I selected the individuals based solely on who I could do without for the next 6 to 12 months, not on their performance in their jobs.  One ended up being a friend, the other was not.  The non-friend's termination was pretty normal -- denial, anger, a few threats, with the subordinate ultimately appealing to my boss to try to get the decision reversed.  The friend's termination was totally different.  I was able to disclose more about my logic and reasons for selecting him (of course, I was careful not to say anything that could be misconstrued as improper).  We had a long conversation about the subject, and worked out a way that allowed for an easier transition for the subordinate, and a cleaner hand-off of responsibilities.  We parted, still friends, and remain friends even up to this day. 

While some of the difference in these two stories relate to differences in the personalities of the subordinates, I still attribute a lot to my tighter relationship with my friend. 

There is one instance where I had a friendship backfire -- during a series of evaluations the company was putting all managers through.  A subordinate I counted as a friend performed particularly poorly on the evaluation.  I explained the situation to him in detail, as well as discussing the implications for his career.  Had he not been a friend, I probably would have been a bit more circumspect.  That subordinate went directly to the Corporate HR department seeking confirmation of what I'd told him.  Unfortunately, he handled it in a ham-handed fashion, and there was some fall out that came back to me -- for being "overly frank" with the employee.  I stand by my decision to make the disclosure, but probably should have eased the employee into the implications to his career, rather than being so abrupt.  And I knew this particular friend was politically inept, and could have coached his follow-on actions if I had better thought things through. 

Go ahead and make friends with some of your subordinates -- life's too short to be holding everyone at work at "arms length" just because you're a manager.  But be careful to treat your friends no better (perhaps even a little worse) than other subordinates -- particularly when it comes to those visible items that are often pointed at by people as indications of favoritism.  And don't fear that your friendships will make those tough calls even tougher.  My personal experiences tell me that it is always easier to work through tough situations with friends than those you've held at a distance.  18.5

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If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing.  

Novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZEDELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013) -- note, the Kindle version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for $2.99, as are various eVersions of LEVERAGE.

CEO Elwood Vilmont disappears into the British Columbia backcountry, kidnapped by criminals  demanding $100 million for his safe return.

CEO Elwood Vilmont disappears into the British Columbia backcountry, kidnapped by criminals  demanding $100 million for his safe return.

To the right is the cover of PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, a novel I'm currently working on, and hope to release before year end 2013.  This novel includes the return of Mark Carson and Cathy Chin from LEVERAGE   The pair are on the run from the FBI, hiding at a British Columbia resort specializing in Corporate retreats.   When a visiting CEO is kidnapped, the two corporate refugees can't help but become involved.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.