At some point, all managers will struggle with the issue of becoming friends with an employee. Sometimes, special people come along. It's natural to want to get to know them better, in an extracurricular context.
But, it's almost never a good idea to become friends with an employee. It's surprising and disheartening how many managers today don't see a problem with becoming friends with an employee.
Which is a huge mistake! Becoming friends with an employee is a severe misstep in leadership. It puts so many things at risk: your team's morale, as well as the reputation of not only your employee but yourself as well.
What’s the harm?
You might be asking yourself, “what’s the big deal?” After all, you’re not a robot – you have feelings and need companionship, right? Well, if you are a leader, you have expectations and responsibilities that transcend friendship.
The most insidious by-product of becoming friends with an employee is the perception of favoritism among the rest of your crew.
Why you should avoid favoritism at all costs
Favoritism behaves like a termite, causing damage from the inside out. There are many good reasons to be wary of showing any bias in your organization. Here are a quick few:
Favoritism hurts the feelings of your employees who feel left out. While ideally, feelings would never come into play in the quality of work people do, the truth is that hurt feelings lead to lowered morale.
It could hurt your reputation with your higher-ups. If you have even a single person above you on the food chain, you don't want a reputation-damaging word getting back to them that you're getting chummy with an employee.
It hurts the employee who is perceived as being favored. Others will see them as the boss' pet. Co-workers may begin treating him or her with disdain, out of jealousy, or with inauthentic friendliness, in the hopes that by getting on their good side, they are gaining favor with you as well.
For example, if a leader goes out for a drink with an employee on the team, how do you think other employees will perceive that?
Let's take it a step further. If this leader then delegates a task to the employee she shared a drink with, others will remark, "It's not what you know, it's who you know", regardless if this person is the most qualified for the job.
Now do you see how becoming friends with an employee can negatively affect the health of your organization?
How to avoid favoritism without hurting feelings
Focus on your own behavior. No one is going to ask you to stop being kind to someone, so ask for feedback from your employees. By supporting a policy of open communication with all your employees, everyone will feel like they have your equal attention. You'll be able to address any issues as soon as they arise, instead of finding out too late that there is a problem.
Keep in mind that none of this means you should be cold, standoffish, or dismissive with your workers. Employees have the right to expect that their leader will be fair and objective. As a leader, it’s difficult to live up to that expectation if you are getting too close to, or spending more time with, one employee over others. Leaders can give speeches all day long that they do not play favorites. However, employees will make their own decision based on the behavior they perceive. Perception is reality! Never forget: leaders are MADE, not born!