Respect the Line Between Employees and Friends

Blurring the distinction can cause lots of problems down the line.
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All too often, the line between an employee and employer or a manager and a subordinate can become blurred. The employer and the employee may share the same hobby. The manager may become romantically involved with the subordinate.

A former mentor of mine, who was a very smart, successful guy, became too friendly with his head of research and development. They went to dinner and ballgames, and their families took vacations together. When my boss was going through marital trouble, he shared his thoughts with his head of R&D.

One day, a tremendous mistake was made by the head of R&D that cost the company millions of dollars. It really wasn't even the head of R&D's fault, but it happened under his watch. All of the goodwill and friendship went right out the window.

My mentor called in the head of R&D and fired him. The fired man walked out in a state of shock. My mentor warned me two hours before the firing, because he had insisted I hire the very competent wife of the head of R&D.

Within two days, she resigned, and the R&D head sued his former close friend for wrongful termination. My mentor's company decided to settle the suit with a generous payment and a letter of recommendation.

We have seen corporate chiefs forced to resign because of their relationships with employees. Being too close to an employee can take down the most powerful leaders.

For many people, it's tough to control the heart -- or the inner heat, where a person allows his emotions to hijack his good sense. It's hard for people in the working world not to seek friendships in the workplace, because we spend more time at the office than we do with family and friends outside the office.

I can tell you, though, that in the first 10 years I was in business, I stepped over the line between boss and employee numerous times, only to regret it and have to terminate the employee. The sense of betrayal on their faces was, I'm sure, the same look that my mentor's former head of R&D had when he was let go. Here are 10 areas I have learned to avoid so as not to cross the line.

1

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Birthday parties

: I have been invited to employee birthday parties and weddings. I politely decline and send a gift.

2

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Sporting events

: The only times I go to games with employees is if we are buying group tickets as a way to reward employees, or if we are taking out clients.

3

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Meals

: I will have lunch with an employee to discuss a business matter, but I won't have lunch just to socialize. I never do dinner unless it is with a client or a prospective client.

4

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Personal problems

: I am not a social worker, and I am not my employees' parents. A big problem with handling personal problems is that you become too involved. The employee calls your home and shows up late, thinking you will understand. Eventually, other employees resent your preferential treatment without knowing the good deed you are trying to do.

5

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Physical activities

: Golfing, jogging, tennis and biking are very personal activities. Bonds are developed. Personal thoughts and problems are shared.

6

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Lending money

: I once lent money to a janitor who worked for me -- he was a good guy who was down on his luck. Unfortunately, he then thought I was his personal piggy bank.

7

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Driving together

: A client of mine gave one of her employees a ride for a month because her car was in an accident. The employee got so used to being picked up that when my client couldn't pick up the employee, she got upset. My client should have suggested that the employee rent a car or get a friend, relative or fellow employee to drive her.

8

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Gifts

: Never give a personal gift. Its one thing to give a book related to business; it's another to give a personal gift.

9

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Drinking

: Going to a bar for a drink after a hard day is a very bad idea. People sometimes lose their professional demeanor.

10

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Vacationing

: I have actually had business associates tell me that they went on a vacation with an employee because they had grown so close. A couple of years went by, and the employee started a competing business and used what he knew about the employer/friend to go into business. Eventually the employee put the employer out of the business.

You can be friendly, and you can share a joke or talk about how the local sports teams are doing, but keep it light and impersonal, or there could be consequences.

Marc Kramer, a serial entrepreneur, is the author of five books and is an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton's Global Consulting Practicum, where he serves as Country Manager for Chile.