Just as the old proverb advises against mixing business and pleasure, caution is advised when it comes to workplace friendships if you’re running your own small business

As the business owner or senior manager, you’ll probably want to get on well with your team (why wouldn’t you?). But – ultimately – you’re the boss. This requires maintaining some professional distance.

If your employees consider you to be more of a mate than manager, it blurs the relationship and can cause difficulties when having to have harsh words or make difficult decisions. Even trying to appraise your staff can be problematic if employees don’t recognise your authority.

Moreover, being friendlier to some staff members than to others can cause resentment, and you can leave yourself wide open to accusations of favouritism and even unfair treatment. You may end up sharing information you shouldn’t share. And if relationships sour, your social life and business can suffer.

Matter of respect

Sir Alex Ferguson never believed in getting too close to those he managed. In his recent best-selling book, Leading, the former Manchester United supremo (and surely one of the all-time great managers?) says: “As a leader you don’t need to be loved, though it is useful, on occasion, to be feared. But most of all, you need to be respected.”

Maintaining a good professional relationship with your staff requires effort, but it’s worthwhile. And if you’re not well liked, relationships with your staff can be improved. Keeping some distance is recommended if you’re to command respect, but what about the friendships and relationships between your employees?

Team talk

Research published by Barclays in 2015 found that the most likely factor determining employee workplace happiness was how they got on with their colleagues (26 per cent), followed by having a good work-life balance (24 per cent), believing in what they are doing (21 per cent) and feeling their role is both useful and mentally challenging (20 per cent).

A happy ship (with clear rules on staff conduct and employees knowing what you expect of them) is usually a productive ship. You should maintain a friendly working environment and encourage good working relationships between your staff, ironing out any problems swiftly. Naturally, some working relationships will develop into close personal relationships – some closer than others.

Personal relationships

A recently published survey of 1,600 adults by the TUC found that a third of respondents have had a relationship with a colleague, while 22 per cent of respondents who were married or in a civil partnership met their other half at work.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented: “It’s hardly surprising that relationships start around the water cooler – we work longer hours than anyone else in Europe. Of course it is right to be careful and think through all the implications – but heavy-handed rules and blanket bans fail to understand human nature. A bit of common sense from employers is all that’s required.”

The TUC workSMART website features answers to questions about close workplace relationships. You should have a policy that clearly explains your expectations, and what conduct is and isn’t acceptable.

Not all relationships last, of course. Acas recommends encouraging employees in a romantic relationship with a colleague to “keep their work and personal life separate, and to stay professional both when things are going well – and if they come off the rails.” Employers, it says, should have robust bullying and harassment procedures should things go wrong and “act upon any complaints swiftly and appropriately.”

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