Can You Be Friends With Your Boss?

How to deal with manager-employee relationships in the office.

November 15, 2016

Here’s a common scenario: You’re a 20-something CPA who enjoys work and relishes hanging out with your newfound professional friends. But then, one of your closest office friends gets promoted to manager and on some projects will be overseeing your work.

When job titles change, so, too, can friendships that have formed along the way, leading to both positive transitions and disruption. “It’s very common” that young CPAs form friendships in the office, said Evan Thompson, a communications coach and president of Evan Thompson and Associates in Toronto. “And when things don’t go well, friendship can go right out the window.”

Workplace friendships offer many benefits, of course. Warm, cordial relationships can build trust and loyalty within an organization. If you are friends with your manager, as opposed to having an adversarial or demanding boss, you’ll likely feel less stress at work and be more productive. However, some employees might expect their friend-turned-manager to cover for them if their work isn’t up to par, said Charles Haviland, CPA/ABV, J.D., a partner with Miller Haviland Ketter PC PA in Westwood, Kan. Or they expect perks or promotions that don’t come to fruition, Thompson added.

“A lot of the responsibility for directing that friendship and deciding how far it goes rests in the hands of the young staff member,” said Rita Keller, a Beavercreek, Ohio-based speaker, writer, and management consultant to CPA firms. “You want to be open, friendly, and cooperative, but don’t want your manager to know everything about your personal life. It really is a tightrope.”

So how do young CPAs find the balance between being friends or too friendly with their managers? Our sources offer the following tips:

  • Create a balance. It’s okay to have friends at work, but don’t lean on your friend-turned-manager too much when you need to vent or let off steam. “You need to have a good strong foundation of friends outside of the office, so you are not just dependent on work friends,” Haviland said.
  • Be friends for the right reasons. People are naturally drawn together by common interests or compatible personalities. “That’s fine, but don’t think of it as a way to advance your career,” Haviland advised. In other words, be friends because you like the other person, not for personal gain.
  • Don’t share too much. Young CPAs are under pressure and need to connect, disclose, maybe even gripe on occasion. But be cautious. “As you build trust for one another, you’re more likely to reveal information that could come back to haunt you,” Thompson said. For instance, don’t share information that could make your superior question your professionalism or judgment. Don’t discuss your dating history or any past personal problems. Instead, try to stay positive and focus on the present. And be especially careful when imbibing with the team—including your manager. “Alcohol can break down boundaries and let you do or say things you may regret later,” he added.
  • Be brief. If your manager asks about your weekend, don’t elaborate too much. “Don’t get into a long diatribe about the awful time you had or that your family is driving you crazy,” Thompson said. Be sociable, not verbose. Also, ask your managers occasionally about their weekends, without invading their privacy.
  • Have an action plan. When professional dynamics change, it may be time for distance. “If you feel you’ve gotten too close, don’t hang out with them as much anymore, or limit it to having lunch as opposed to going out for drinks,” said Kim Huynh, CPA, audit senior manager at Briggs & Veselka Co. in Houston. Additionally, if you socialize, stick to group—as opposed to one-on-one—activities to avoid misperceptions.
  • Don’t “friend” your boss on Facebook. Allowing your supervisor to see your weekend escapades or your personal comments on Facebook is “potentially disastrous,” Thompson said. “It strips away the perception that you are a professional and focused on your career.”
  • Talk about work. Both managers and employees need to set boundaries and concentrate on their responsibilities. Speak primarily about work when in the office, and keep it professional. “Be friendly and courteous and collaborative,” Thompson said, “but do not enter into a friendship in the classic sense that includes sharing confidences, spending a lot of time together, or becoming co-dependent, and losing your focus on getting your work done.”

Have you successfully navigated transitioning a relationship from co-workers to manager-employee? Tell us about it on Facebook or Twitter.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this story, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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