Why your staff can never be your friends

Being the boss of your own business feels lonely at times, and as you’re surrounded constantly by the people you employ, it can be tempting to think of them as close friends. 

But adding this emotional dimension to business relationships often over-complicates things and creates an environment that hinders, rather than helps, your running of the business.

Why is considering your employees to be your friends a bad idea?

A question to ask yourself if you think of employees as friends is: How many times do you see them each week outside of work, at non-work related events?

The answer is invariably almost never. The truth of work relationships is that we have to get on with each other when we work closely together and so we typically behave in a way that’s friendly. There’s nothing wrong with being friendly at work, but don’t mistakenly believe that friendly behaviour means you have strong friendships.

Here are four reasons that employees rarely make good friends:

You pay their wages

As employees, they have a financial relationship with you. They will never understand that you get paid last and sometimes perhaps nothing at all. No matter what happens, as your staff you have to pay their wages. When you have a dreadful month, they will still expect to get paid, come what may. You have to pay them before you pay yourself, in fact. 

They will be on the side of other employees

The perspective of an employee is that their peers are their workmates. It’s a game of us versus them, and unfortunately for you, you’ll almost always be “them”! 

Thus when you have problems with an employee, they will often agree with you personally, but then talk about you behind your back. Their workmates are their fellow employees, they all have the same relationship to you in financial terms and they tend to stick together.

They’ll struggle with confidentiality

There are many situations where you’ll want to share information with a friend about the business, yet very few of these will work in your favour if you this friend also works for you. 

It’s such a big conflict of interests to have information about a work colleague, or about the business. It’s just too easy to let slip to a colleague that the business is up for sale, or that redundancies are being considered. If you lean on your staff as friends, expect them to lean on each other and that everything you say in private will become public knowledge.

Performance problems

One way that many small businesses find new staff is to employ close friends and family. The biggest issue is when there are performance problems with your friend. You have to confront them and explain that they’re just not pulling their weight effectively. And there may be an even bigger issue – if you have to let them go, you may be saying goodbye to a friend as well as an employee.

The simplest way to avoid this situation is not to get into it in the first place. While it can seem like an easy and maybe ideal solution to a staffing problem, it rarely works out that in practice.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and so somebody is bound to say that there are plenty of examples where friendships in the workplace have been forged and sustained. However, for every one good example, there are probably 50 or more bad ones.

Ultimately, if you need a confidant to help you run your business, seek some kind of relationship away from your staff. Network with other business owners, hire a business coach, talk to friends away from your business. You’ll get a more honest perspective and you’ll avoid the pitfalls of creating a conflict of interest for them.

Lee Duncan is the author of Double Your Business: How To Break Through The Barriers To Higher Growth, Turnover and Profit (Financial Times Publishing).

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