What if your co-worker is also a close friend? What if you become close friends in the process of working together? What if your friend reports directly to you, or vice versa?
Is it possible to be completely fair and objective when a friendship overlaps with a business relationship? Is it possible to even avoid the perception of bias when others are aware of the friendship?
These questions get directed to me often. And they can be tough to sort out. Because we spend so much time at work, we want to have good friends there. In fact, strong friendships at work can be hugely motivating. They can fuel unparalleled productivity, and they can make good employees more likely to stick around.
But these relationships can create a minefield if they interfere with the accountability, fairness, transparency, and trust that are essential to a good workplace environment.
From my experience both as a business leader and as a consultant, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- In general, don’t avoid making close friendships in order to deliberately create an objective
“distance” from your co-workers.
- However, do avoid situations in which you alone make decisions about the careers, job assignments, or compensation of close friends. Even if you have partial responsibility over these matters, always get other perspectives and feedback to help you see what others see. In some cases you may have to recuse yourself from making a critical decision affecting the well-being of a friend at work. Some companies, for example, have rules preventing significant others from working together.
- Successfully pulling off the friend/co-worker trick might require establishing norms and expectations up front, both for the friends and for others who might be affected. It’s probably best to be open about it all — to acknowledge the closeness that exists but also to signal to others that you are aware of the challenges and committed to not playing favorites.
- A mature friendship — one based on honesty, integrity, and true concern for the other’s well-being — can balance the needs of the friendship with the needs of the working relationship. This kind of friendship can withstand the pressures work places on it. Likewise, a mature business relationship can withstand challenges to its integrity brought on by the presence of personal intimacy.
- All this depends on the ability to face difficult issues. If your friendship avoids difficult issues, that will show up in the workplace. If a working relationship avoids difficult issues, then that will show up in any friendship evolving from it.
If you’re lucky enough to have a friendship full of honesty, depth, richness, and laughter, then — within reason — there’s no harm in letting that show up at work. It builds teamwork and fosters job satisfaction.
YOUR PATH FORWARD: Make sure you have the conversations you need to have with your close friends at work. Make agreements to keep one another honest. During business hours, put the well-being of the business first and let the friendship play out from there.