Having friends at work can be a lifeline, whether it’s company on the morning coffee run or someone you can turn to for support and advice when you need it. According to a 2018 survey of more than 33,000 workers by the job site Comparably, 60% of women said they had a close friend at work.
Being friends with a colleague is simpler because we are equal to our peers – they aren’t deciding our workload or pay, or when we can take our annual leave. When there’s a power differential in a relationship – and when one party is able to impact the other’s ability to succeed – things become trickier.
So while going for a few drinks after work is one thing, can you ever truly be close friends with a boss?
Ultimately, says coach and business owner Zoe Hawkins, it depends on what kind of manager you are.
“I don’t think this is a simple question to answer, and ultimately I believe this comes down to the experience and maturity of the leader,” she says. “It can be just as unhelpful to think that a leader should not be friends with their team as it is to think that they should.
“In the middle is probably a space where leaders are authentic, confident, have nothing to prove and are able to see beyond hierarchy and roles, to treat people as human beings first. Where a leader can hold the professional boundaries and in turn the friend can respect that, then these relationships should be able to work.”
As is the case with most relationships, however, it’s important to have clear boundaries, Hawkins adds. “It would be naive to say that the friendship doesn’t affect the working relationship, the real questions are how does it do that, and is the effect acceptable? Both parties need to manage the relationship in work and behave in ways that are required,” she explains.
“Left to the leader alone it can cause issues of unclear expectations, particularly where difficult circumstances arise such as redundancy or performance issues.”
Being friends with a manager comes with a whole host of benefits. When you get along with your boss, work is more fun, relaxed and enjoyable, as you’re able to be more yourself. Having someone you trust and respect to give you advice and support regarding your job can push you forward in your career, too. Likewise, working for someone you like personally can mean you are more engaged in your work.
Friendships like these come with certain challenges, however. If the relationship sours, it can affect your work and career badly. On the other hand, though, a strong friendship can cloud judgement regarding your performance – and letting mistakes slide won’t help your career in the long term.
Felicity Dwyer, a member of the Life Coach Directory, says that while it’s possible to be friends with a manager, there can be some pitfalls – linked to issues of power dynamics, boundaries and fairness at work.
“A good working relationship may develop into a friendship. Or a valued friend may become your manager and you don’t want to lose the friendship,” she says. “A good manager will be on friendly terms with all their team members, whilst retaining respect by setting clear boundaries and standards of behaviour, and treating all members of staff as equals.
“So your manager needs to demonstrate this behaviour, whilst you accept that you’re just one of the team within the workplace setting,” Dwyer says.
“At work you are subordinate to your manager, and she or he has the right and the duty to manage you, including giving frank feedback on your performance. They have the right to exercise their legitimate power in ensuring work standards are met by all. You need to be able to accept criticism of your work if it is warranted, without taking offence.”
Another problem can arise if a friendship results in favouritism – either actual, or perceived by other staff.
“Your manager needs to be aware of this, and it’s also important that you don’t expect favourable treatment. If there is a sense of disquiet within the team, then this needs to be brought out into the open and discussed, otherwise resentment can fester,” explains Dwyer.
“Outside work, we can find that different friends tend to bring out different aspects of our characters. So if you socialise with your manager outside of the workplace, I recommend keeping in mind that you have a professional relationship,” she adds. “If you have a very different side of yourself that sometimes comes out to play, then perhaps save that for a different friendship group.”