Having a “friends” based management style can often have unintended consequences, disrupting any enjoyment that managing people may bring. Don’t mistake kindness and friendliness. Every manager should demonstrate kindness, respect and professionalism to all employees in a business. Putting “friendly” above these principles can breed negative feelings and lead to accusations of unfairness, turning a fun working environment into an uncomfortable and contentious one, which can be a drain on your time and resources as you try to untangle what has gone wrong.

It’s natural that people want to enjoy what they do to earn a living. Regardless of the role you perform in your business, your workplace still forms a substantial part of your day and can also make up a proportion of your social life. This is only natural. People are social and our work colleagues are connected to us through shared experiences. There are significant benefits essential to survival in collaboration and cooperation.

Here are some of the common pitfalls:


One of the biggest problems with being friendly is an inability to immediately challenge behaviour that pushes the rules. If everyone is being casual and friendly in the workplace and a rule gets broken, it is often harder for the manager to step out of the “social group” and challenge this rule breaking. 

This is common for issues such as making jokes or derogatory remarks about a religion, race or disability. The manager is the one who should put an immediate halt to any conversation or language that can be considered discriminatory or against the values of the organisation, but the social nature of humans means the group acceptance often wins. It’s not just language where violations can occur, small infractions such as lateness or leaving early can go unchecked because the person is a friend and means no harm. 

The problem with this approach is for the outsider, whose behaviour and actions will probably not go unnoticed or understood and may feel unfairly targeted if the rules only apply to them. This is a particular pain point for anyone who already considers themselves an outsider because of their race, religion or health status to begin with. Any insider jokes on these issues or singling out of behaviour will cause a greater feeling of exclusion which can be the precursor to discrimination suits.

Insider knowledge

Have you ever found out what is going on with an employer through someone else? I certainly have. I once found out I was being made redundant because someone I shared an office with was a friend of the managing director. 

An employee who finds out about key strategic business decisions via an unofficial route is going to feel unfairly treated and won’t feel good about their job or the integrity of the manager. This has the potential to cause difficulties between employees in a team and may also cause the “friend” to be isolated from their day to day team mates. This is especially the case if the team feels the information flow is a 2 way one. 

As a business owner, if you are going through stress or the process of making difficult decisions it helps to discuss those decisions with friends, but that should stay well outside of the workplace or you are asking for an accusation of unfairness. Significant strategic management decisions should always be communicated to everyone at the same time. Your work friends will have to understand they cannot receive information before the rest of the team. 

If there are unofficial information streams, your employees will have no confidence in your objectivity in making business decisions.

Face to face time and feedback

I am going to call out smoke breaks as the biggest offender with this issue. If managers are taking smoke breaks with employees then that time spent can be very valuable feedback time for the employee. There was a popular “Friends” episode that made light of this issue with Rachel taking up smoking to have face time with the manager, however if you are a non-smoker you know too well how real the situation can be. 

I dealt with a case where only one employee was a non-smoker and was expected to run a busy service while the rest of the employees, including the service manager went for smoke breaks, some of which stretched to 45 minutes while sounds of laughter floated back into the ears of the employee struggling to keep things afloat. As you can imagine the outcome of the case was not good for the manager. 

It is not likely that managers intend for breaks to be a time for structured feedback, however it is easy to slip into this habit because employees seek approval. It is natural for employees to want to know they are on the right path and are in the good books with the manager, but if the employees who are left out cannot get any of that precious time for themselves then it could lead to accusations of unfairness. All employees want face time and feedback from their boss, they probably also want the laid back side and the casual conversation, these things should not be limited to those the manager considers friends.

Relationships in the workplace happen, that is to be expected. Managers will get along better with some people than others, that is also natural. The balancing trick for a manager is to ensure that friendship with them isn’t a gateway to acceptance of bad behaviour, learning management strategy or the only feedback an employee gets. Employees should all have the same access to the same manager regardless of what “in group” they happen to be a part of, or feelings of unfairness are bound to rise. Where there are feelings of unfairness bubbling away under the surface, there is potential for any decision you make to turn contentious.

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