Can you be friends with direct reports? Creating a healthy friendly relationship

When the company promoted Brian to a management position last month, he never dreamed Alex would be his most problematic direct report. Close friends since meeting at new employee orientation three years ago, they frequently ate lunch together, talked about everything from sports to dates, and helped each other with assignments. Now, they barely spoke, and the whole software engineering department sensed their tension.

What went wrong? Brian claims Alex felt he could slack off with his bestie as boss. He began stretching the lunch hour and took deadlines less seriously. Other team members noticed, which put the new manager in a bad position. Alex claims power went to Brian’s head. The demands of his new role were all Brian ever talked about anymore. Plus, he seemed to think Alex’s job was to make him look good. Brian took offense any time Alex didn’t support him unconditionally in front of co-workers. And whenever a project demanded overtime, Brian always called on Alex first.

Can they ever go back to being good friends? And, on a more abstract level, should they even try?

The challenges of boss-employee friendship

Good managers establish positive working relationships with the people they oversee. Pleasant interactions, mutual respect, and common courtesy make for a genial work environment. Morale and teamwork thrive.

Having a solid professional relationship, however, is different from maintaining a close friendship. Especially with power dynamics in play, the latter faces complications.

Difficult People D

Potential difficulties include:


Gone are the days of standing around the water cooler dissecting management when one of you joins The Dark Side. As much as you may like each other, things are different. It may feel weird to discuss certain topics when you no longer approach them from the same employment-level perspective. And both sides may feel more guarded about what they say and how they say it.


True friendship means celebrating each other’s success, right? Yes, that is the ideal, but such cheerleading is not always easy. A fatter paycheck, a corner office, more influence, greater input on company decisions . . . these things and more can wake the green-eyed monster. The situation becomes even dicier if the friend believes she should have received the promotion.


Managers must create a level playing field. They need to enforce rules across the board, give honest performance reviews and feedback, and provide equal opportunity for advancement. The temptation exists to extend preferential treatment to someone with whom you have a personal relationship, which is a recipe for disaster. Other direct reports will notice and rightfully call foul. Good luck earning back their trust or respect.

To counteract any perception of favoritism, managers sometimes go to a different extreme. They may hold their friends to a tougher standard or point out mistakes more rapidly. Such treatment can make the person feel picked on, creating ill will on both the professional and personal levels.


What you know about a colleague and what you know about a friend tend to differ. For the former, your arsenal of knowledge may be the person’s favorite sports team, hobbies, and last vacation spot. For the latter, you may be privy to details about personal life, such as medical conditions or family dramas. These things can influence the decisions you make. The company, however, expects you as a manager to think on behalf of the organization. Personal alliances cannot cloud judgment.

Too much information also can cause problems in the other direction. Leaders sometimes receive information lower-level employees do not, and they must watch not to inadvertently share. Friends may push for the inside scoop, or the manager may let something slip while hanging out.

Conflicting expectations

A manager with a best friend “in the trenches” may expect that person to follow without question, promote management’s agenda, or take on extra burdens in the name of making you look good. But such a mindset is unfair. The person’s primary interest is her individual career, not yours. She is entitled to express her own opinions and look out for her own interests. Pressure to act otherwise can kill even a strong friendship.

Similarly, a friend should not see her manager friend as a personal “in” with higher-ups. Demanding special treatment or an inside edge to a promotion sours the relationship.


Perhaps you two no longer share the same schedule or lunchtime. Maybe you do not have as much in common anymore. The newly minted manager may be spending more time with same-level peers. The worker may begin finding it more fun to hang out with others in his same role. Real or imagined, either person in the relationship may believe the other is now acting differently, such as uppity or too needy. Simply put, the friendship may have run its course.

Redefining relationships

Some friendships remain solid when one person becomes the other’s boss. Maintenance requires good communication and solid boundaries. Acknowledging challenges from the get-go helps. Do not be surprised, though, if the nature of the bond moves from “friends” to “friendly.” In fact, workplace experts often tout this as the ideal between supervisors and anyone on their staff.

What does this mean? Think of “friendly” as camaraderie that supports pleasant working relationships. Actions might include greeting one another at the start of the workday, talking about common interests, acknowledging birthdays and other occasions, and offering encouragement. You might know the basics about each other’s families but not the nitty-gritty details. Social media connection probably stays at the LinkedIn level rather than following each other on Facebook or Instagram.

Good managers make a point of trying to establish friendly relationships with all their direct charges. Knowing each person as an individual raises morale, identifies motivators, and boosts trust. A new manager may want to point out the importance of this effort to previous friends so that hard feelings do not develop. Spending time with each person is part of the job, not a personal affront.

Can the two of you still go out for drinks at the end of the day? Tread carefully. Others in the office likely will disapprove and look for signs that you consider this person special. Thus, even if your friend later deserves that desirable assignment, giving it to him will raise eyebrows.

For leaders who feel comfortable socializing with staff, a better tactic is to do so as a group. Extend invitations to all. This equality puts everyone on the same playing field.

Leaders also may want to consider the particulars of socializing outside of the office. Keep professionalism a paramount concern. If you choose to drink at all, limit the number. Dress casually but appropriately. Avoid questionable venues such as casinos or strip clubs. Watch out for swearing, inappropriate jokes, bad-mouthing the company, or talking about a person who isn’t there. You are still the boss and need to behave as such. Team members may be having fun, but they are still observing and judging.

New friendships

This article has spent a lot of time talking about changes and concerns facing friendships between two people when one of them moves up the ladder. Other cases exist, though, where two people never start out at the same level. They develop a friendship while one of them already is the boss and the other a direct report.

The potential problems of such a relationship mimic those previously discussed. While jealousy and accusations of “power has gone to your head” may not exist, the setting remains ripe for other issues. Most notably, team members will scrutinize for signs of favoritism. Likewise, providing honest feedback may prove difficult, as could making tough decisions for the company when outcomes impact a friend.

Both sides may want to seriously consider sticking to the advice of being friendly rather than friends. In fact, consider making professional distance from the get-go part of your modus operandi. It is easier for a boss and an employee to maintain boundaries from the start rather than face discomfort later. Leaders depend on the contributions of all team members, and maintaining equity is a must. Good employees want to be judged and rewarded on their own merit, not on suspicions of special treatment. Sticking to a cordial, professional relationship makes career sense.