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Neither Friend Nor Foe: Educating Managers on Maintaining Balanced Relationships With Employees

Rachelle Berlin WeathersbyIn the fifteen years since I left the courtroom for the classroom and started working as an employee relations consultant, I have seen a significant shift in the types of workplace issues that cause my phone to ring. In the past, most investigations and remedial training sessions I conducted related to complaints of sexual and racial harassment or discrimination. While these issues undoubtedly continue to exist in the workplace today, a growing number of issues center upon managers and supervisors who struggle to maintain balanced relationships with the employees they supervise. The behaviors at issue are probably not illegal, however, they are certainly counterproductive to a respectful work environment, and often create the appearance of improper (or potentially illegal) behavior in the eyes of the affected employees.

The two most common mistakes I see are managers who:

  1. Cannot draw the line between boss and "friend,"
  2. Let their personal feelings influence how they address workplace performance deficiencies. 

Managers with the difficulties above might as well draw a red bullseye on their back as these behaviors are frequently the root cause of employee complaints. Often, managers do not realize that these behaviors are or could be an issue until a complaint is made. The good news is that by educating managers about the risks of these common mistakes and the types of behaviors to avoid, you can proactively minimize the occurrence of these situations in your workplace. 

The Friend 

This manager is "too close and personal" with employees. This situation often occurs in environments where banter is common or where the corporate culture is more relaxed. It can also be prevalent in organizations that have experienced rapid growth and managers now manage their former peers or in situations where managers have been promoted without the appropriate supervisory or managerial training.

What's the Risk?

  • Employees "go along" with discussions even though they are uncomfortable because they don't want to speak up to their manager for a variety of reasons.
  • An employee will change his or her mind about speaking up and complain about behaviors when the manager takes an action unfavorable to the employee (i.e., poor performance evaluation, change of schedule, etc.).
  • Performance issues can either not be addressed or softened to the point of having no weight as an accurate performance assessment of a friend can be uncomfortable and challenging. Perceptions of favoritism and exclusion amongst employees can fester if the manger is selective about whom she or he treats in more friendly or casual manner. 
  • The manager may lose credibility if there is a perception she or he knew about a subordinates misconduct but chose not to address or report the behavior because of the friendship.

Best Practices for Managers

  • Avoid discussions in which highly personal information is shared (financial, sexual, marital, medical, religious beliefs) and learn to re-direct conversations of this nature.
  • After-hours socializing with direct reports must be professional - especially if alcohol is consumed. Some managers might consider minimizing or avoiding these situations.
  • Be inclusive with your subordinates. If you routinely invite a select few to lunch or make an effort to converse with certain employees, you run the risk of creating perceptions of exclusion and favoritism. 
  • Avoid giving or loaning money to employees or buying gifts that appear unusual in a normal business setting.
  • Avoid personal contact with subordinates on social media.
  • Be mindful of the appearance of any after-hours communications unrelated to work (text, email, phone, etc.) with subordinates. Purpose, frequency and time of communication matter.  

The Foe

This manager inappropriately "personalizes" a coaching or counseling session by expressing his or her feelings about the situation. Personalizing the feedback delivered can result in the manager yelling or using a raised tone of voice, aggressive arm gestures, a condescending tone of voice or manner or other demeaning body language.  

What's the Risk?

  • The employee may feel humiliated by the manner of delivery and the point to be conveyed is lost.
  • The employee may feel bullied by the behavior. A perception of bullying can be based on generational expectations of what is appropriate communication in the workplace. For example, many Millennials attended schools with anti-bullying policies, which may have prohibited broad categories of behaviors such as "demeaning comments," or "threatening gestures." The Gen X or Boomer manager who loses control during an employee discussion may not consider that behavior to be bullying, but the perception of the Millennial employee who firmly believes these behaviors are not okay in the workplace is far different.  
  • The behavior may create the perception of unlawful harassment if the employee perceives that the treatment they receive is because of a protected characteristic. Remember, it is human nature to blame others, especially those who have humiliated us, rather than take personal responsibility for a mistake made. 
  • The manager will lose credibility in the eyes of all other employees who hear about the out-of-control behavior and believe me, they will hear about it.
  • The affected employee or others may post information about the incident on social media. Depending on the nature of the post, the communication could possibly be protected conduct under the National Labor Relations Act (even in a non-union workplace).  

Best Practices for Managers

  • Coaching and counseling discussions must be professional and devoid of any overt or implied expression of personal animosity about the situation.
  • Think carefully about what you will say and how you will say it before you counsel an employee. Stick to specifics - how the behavior fell short of expectations, what you expect in the future, and ask for feedback on what you can do to help the employee succeed.
  • Be mindful of body language and tone of voice in coaching and counseling discussions.
  • Avoid comments that could be perceived as sarcasm or as personal attacks on the employee.

Education is Key

A written policy on professional and respectful behavior in the workplace provides a foundation for supervisors about these issues. Share the principals of your policy with your supervisors during supervisory training. Routine training of your organizations' managers and training for new managers as part of their new role is critical.    
Some organizations use internal resources for training to prevent these issues and investigations of complaints of this nature if they have the expertise and bandwidth. Another option is using an external resource, like Employment Practices Solutions (EPS). EPS' attorney consultants work with employers to prevent and correct employment claims while enhancing employee relations through training for managers and employees alike. 

Whatever resource you select, make sure your workplace is prepared to proactively manage these common, yet difficult, interpersonal issues.