Friends with Subordinates

This two-minute leadership topic will discuss whether a manager can be friends with their subordinates. There are two camps in this thought process, 1) managers should not be friends with their subordinates, and 2) it is okay for managers to be friends with their subordinates.

We’ll start with those who believe that managers should not be friends with their employees.

If a manager becomes friends with a subordinate, there may come a time when that friendship interferes with daily operations. Imagine the human resources department in a large hospital. The hierarchy within the HR department looks like this:


Friends with Subordinates


The department consists of: Morgan Williams – Director, Jared Nichols – Assistant Director, and the support team, which includes, Mike Taylor, Chenille Martinez, and Marissa Wray.

The previous director, Rodney “Rod” Masterson, retired eight months ago. Rod’s team would describe him as strict but approachable. Jared was interviewed for the director position, but the hospital’s leadership team felt that it would be good to get someone from the outside to offer fresh perspectives.

Morgan was hired five months ago. Before acquiring her current position, she was the assistant director of HR within an affordable care network.

Morgan and Marissa’s personalities meshed perfectly. It didn’t take too long for a friendship to develop. On the flip side, Morgan and Chenille did not see eye-to-eye. While Marissa and Chenille were talking in the breakroom, the topic of their caseloads was discussed.

Chenille was dumbfounded to find that she had nearly twice the caseload of Marissa. Chenille and Marissa have the same role and it was Chenille who trained Marissa. Chenille has numerous awards of service above and beyond expectations and has been a model employee for the last eleven years.

Fearing retaliation if she brought the suspected favoritism to Morgan, she went to Jared and lodged a complaint. Jared went to Morgan’s supervisor with the concerns. Morgan’s supervisor was quick to act, and Morgan was able to skirt the issue and avoid any ramifications. As a result, Chenille decided on external employment. The friendship had swayed Morgan to systematically decrease Marissa’s caseload.

The camp that believes managers should not be friends with employees point to the friendship as the cause of losing a star employee. In the above scenario, there was blatant favoritism between the manager and her subordinate. Often, favoritism is subtle which makes it difficult for other employees to successfully seek remediation.

On the other side of the continuum are those individuals who believe that it is okay to develop friendships with subordinates. Not everyone has the capacity or the maturity to do this however, as it takes a heightened level of personal fortitude to be able to effectively set boundaries with employees.

The newly hired manager may find themselves in the midst of organizational politics with employees who are trying to either settle vendettas or desire advocates for their personal agendas. The astute manager will more than likely recognize such ploys and steer clear.

Studies have consistently shown that employees will spend more time conversing with each other than with their significant others. It is only natural then that friendships would ultimately develop and even thrive in the workplace. As mentioned above, it is critical for managers to be cognizant of any friendships that may be taking place and to set boundaries to ensure that favoritism and other pitfalls do not place the manager, the employee, or the organization in a precarious situation.

The manager who has developed a friendship with employees must consistently question themselves as to whether that relationship is influencing decisions or if it may appear to others that this is occurring. If it becomes less clear to the manager that the boundaries are intact, it may be time to curtail the relationship or at least put it on pause until such time that the boundaries are present once more.

In the end, if boundaries can be maintained, why not be friends with those whom you spend the most time with? It doesn’t always have to be lonely at the top (within boundaries, of course).


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