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How to maintain boundaries with workplace friendships

Friendship among co-workers is common, but here are guidelines to keep the relationship professional

We spend at least eight hours a day, five days a week, with our colleagues. We rely on each other to complete job-related tasks, share morning coffee and even the occasional gossip. Some of our colleagues even become friends, so it is not uncommon to spend more time with them outside of work. However, what if that colleague supervises you, or you supervise them? In other words, should a boss be friends with his or her employees?

We all desire a friendly working environment with an amicable boss. Contemporary leadership styles also emphasize that leaders encourage openness and create a bond with their team. After-office parties and social gatherings are becoming increasingly popular as a tool to motivate employees and to maintain a positive, healthy work environment. Employee stress is a substantial issue in the hospitality industry, attributed to the fast-paced nature, longer work hours and stressful work conditions. The supervisor-subordinate relationship, therefore, plays a vital role in maintaining the workplace equilibrium. With formal hierarchal structures becoming a thing of the past, the boss’s role has evolved. Especially in hospitality, with a younger work force and fast promotions to management positions (an average of five years), managers may struggle to balance their role of a friend versus supervisor.

HR gurus unanimously agree that a boss should not be a friend. However, navigating workplace relationships can be as tricky and complicated as navigating personal relationships. This is especially true for small businesses that operate with a skeletal workforce; because employees spend so much time with each other, it is rather difficult for these relationships not to extend beyond the workplace. There certainly are some benefits associated with a friendly, healthy relationship between supervisor and subordinate, but there are many gray areas to be aware of.

Workplace friendships are found to have positive effects. Polls by Gallup’s State of the American Workplace show workplace friendships increase employee satisfaction by 50 percent, and people with a best friend at work are found to be seven times more likely to be engaged at work. More than 60 percent of employees who have between six and 25 friends at work admit to loving their workplace, compared with the 24 percent with no friends at work.

Clearly, workplace relationships can make someone more productive and happy; however, it is not without perils.

‘No fraternization’  

Many companies have come up with HR policies prohibiting fraternizing with a colleague. Such policies are created to ensure professionalism in workplace relationships. This does not mean that an employee can get fired for meeting with co-workers and managers outside work for a drink or dinner. However, these can, over time, lead to favoritism or inappropriate romantic relationships, which can land employees in hot water. If an employer has a strict fraternization policy and an employee violates it, he or she may be disciplined or even fired for breach of contract. Current legal challenges arising from workplace romances and the pressing need to implement a no-fraternization policy were among the major issues raised during 10th Annual Hospitality Law Conference. Miracle Restaurant Group, Izaak Walton Inn, Five Guys and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide are some of examples of hospitality businesses that have put a no-fraternization policy in place.

Legal complications

Fraternization can result in a sexual harassment lawsuit if the relationship goes beyond the professional realm and does not end well. On the flip side, firing an employee for fraternization when the company does not have a drafted policy prohibiting it can result in a wrongful termination lawsuit.


Aside from legal complications, there are social and professional issues that may harm workplace rapport. The supervisor, of course, is the one who evaluates employee performance, which directly affects promotions and pay raises. The friendship between a supervisor and a subordinate is bound to raise some eyebrows at work, even if the conduct is professional. In extreme cases, the situation can result in a formal complaint filed against the supervisor or the company.

Effect on other employees

The other employees who are not perceived as being favored may feel left out, which could negatively impact teamwork and collaboration within the workplace. This can lead to employees feeling less appreciated and cause decreased morale in the workplace.

What if the relationship is threatened or ends?

Maintaining balance in any relationship is strenuous, and workplace relationships are no exception. At some point, there are bound to be disagreements between a manager and employee who are friends, or more, causing further tensions. 

What should workplace relationships look like?

Of course co-workers can talk about vacation plans with each other and share stories about what they did last weekend! Here are a few tips to navigate workplace relationships:  

1. Maintain a professional distance. It is easier said than done, but co-workers should stay away from indulging in gossip or brown-nosing. Employees should also not try to use his or her perceived friendship with the boss for extra perks at work.  

In workplace relationships, work should always take precedence over personal aspects stemming from the friendship. The employee must always be aware that while at work, the individual in question is their boss first and a friend second. It is good to develop a positive relationship with the boss, but one must be careful to not take advantage of it.

Managers also have the obligation to be the boss first. This would especially hold true when they are evaluating employee performance for raises or promotion consideration. Any personal feelings, good or bad, need to be checked at the door, with decisions made only based on job performance.

2. Build a team environment. The manager should attempt to include all employees when socializing outside work. Occasionally inviting the entire team out for a game or lunch could be a positive team-building exercise. This would make everyone feel included and would boost the whole team’s morale.

3. Put policies in place. A company’s decision to create and implement a fraternization policy may depend on the size and type of the business and its corporate culture. To err on the side of caution, a fraternization policy is necessary to spell out the limits and parameters related to workplace relationships. Employees need to have directions regarding acceptable workplace behavior. An effective policy can also protect the organization from legal issues. The policy should clearly spell out conducts that are forbidden and permitted.

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