Employee Relationships: Keeping Your Distance


If you plan to be an effective, respected manager, you’ll have to keep your distance from your employees. They’re not your friends; they’re your subordinates. You can (and should) be cordial and courteous, but here are the reasons why you need to keep an appropriate distance from those you manage:

It will never be a true friendship. Friends are typically equals, right? That won’t be the case in a workplace when one of those friends holds a position of power. You have the authority to make decisions that affect the livelihood of your employees and their experience at work. Because of that fact, you can never be certain if your so-called “friendship” is genuine or a manifestation of your “friend’s” desire not to be penalized, or part of their strategy to advance in the salon.

You might make them uncomfortable. Some professionals don’t want to be friends with the boss. They understand how complicated that relationship could get and how that could negatively affect their future at the salon. Don’t put an employee in a position where they feel pressured to play along.

The sharing of personal information and gossip is tremendously inappropriate—and it will happen. Friends vent about work, especially when they work together. They also talk about their personal lives. Anything you say to your employee/friend may be used against you in the future.

Even if you somehow manage not to talk about your personal life or work, the existence of the friendship gives the employee/friend a degree of credibility they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Anything your “friend” says about you will likely be taken pretty seriously, whether or not it’s true.

They may lose respect for you as an authority. A person’s behaviors change when they become friends with another. This may result in situations where your “friend/employee” rolls their eyes, groans, or snaps at you when you instruct them to do something. Other employees will see this behavior and emulate it themselves.

You may be accused of (or pressured to show) favoritism. Your “friends” may expect special treatment, but whether they do or not, the existence of your workplace “friendships” alone will become a lens through which employees evaluate your management of the salon. Employees will question their performance reviews, promotions, demotions, and terminations—among other things.

Your friendship with your employee (or employees) gives your team the ability to question your impartiality and therefore the validity of your decisions.

Some may feel excluded or may consider you disingenuous. You aren’t going to hit it off with everyone you work with. Should you not pursue friendships with every employee, you’ll leave some professionals feeling dejected and possibly resentful. If you do pursue friendships with every employee (including those you normally wouldn’t be friends with), those employees may see it for exactly what it is—an insincere gesture.

It overcomplicates everything. For some managers, disciplining or terminating an employee can be awkward and difficult. When that employee has become a personal friend, it can be agonizing. Why would you introduce even more stress to your job?

Your responsibilities are too important to compromise with childishness. There’s no nice way to say this, but even if there were, I’m of the opinion that lessons like this aren’t effective unless they’re delivered like a kick to the sternum. If you’re so desperate to be liked that you’re willing to risk losing respect and credibility, and possibly becoming completely ineffective in your position, then you’re not cut out for management.

Understand your role in the salon. You are there to work. You are not there to make friends with your subordinates any more than the employees are there to make friends with their clients.

Personal friendships with employees are inappropriate—period.

Employees may try to pursue a personal friendship with you at some point. Sometimes, these relationships develop naturally, but the possibility exists that the employee will be motivated to “befriend” you for professional gain. Err on the side of caution and assume that is always the case.

How can I keep my employees from pursuing a friendship with me?

To keep employees from crossing any lines:

Never discuss your personal life. While you should try to get to know your employees so you can manage them better, there’s absolutely no practical reason for your employees to know anything personal about you.

Never engage in or allow controversial discussions (on religion, politics, sex, etc.). It can be easy to believe that others share our opinions, but often, we live in self-constructed bubbles by curating our news sources and social groups, creating echo chambers that aren’t representative of the real world, where opinions and lifestyles vary wildly.

Assume that any opinion you share will offend half of the people who hear it. Then, stay on the safe side by keeping those opinions to yourself.

Never participate in social events with employees outside of work (excluding work events the salon organizes). There may be instances where your employees want to grab drinks after work or hit the club to celebrate a coworker’s birthday. Decline those invites. Social events, especially those where alcohol will be consumed, create the potential for serious lapses in judgement and boundary-crossing.

Never give or accept gifts or favors (obviously, performance bonuses and discretionary rewards you may distribute for job performance do not count). Look—I’m a mom. I’ve been a mom from the time I was twenty-two years old. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve been tempted to accept an offer of help from an employee? I would have killed for a night out. However, as the employer, you never want to put yourself in a position where you owe an employee anything. Remember, there’s a power dynamic at play here. Don’t complicate things.

Never allow inappropriately familiar social interactions (i.e. hugging). Some employees are natural huggers and cuddlers, but you should maintain personal space—even if it means having a discussion with that employee. Not a single “touchy” employee I worked with has ever had negative intentions or sinister motivations for putting their arm around my shoulders or pulling me into an embrace on a rough day, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable behavior.

Should any employees continue to pursue a friendship with you, speak to them privately about their behaviors. Be straightforward about where your boundaries are.

Your employees need a leader; not a friend. Strive to foster an honest, respectful, and trusting relationship with them. You don’t have to create an inappropriate relationship with your professionals to be liked—simply give them the guidance and support they need. Care about their job satisfaction and show them that their contributions are valued.

Not everyone will like you. We learn this as young children. We also hear that we should “kill them with kindness,” but it’s best to promptly reject that lesson the second you consider a career in any kind of management. Certainly, you can be courteous and kind, but as a leader you’re required to be fair—not to bend over backwards to earn the approval of others.

You will rarely be capable of pleasing everyone and you’ll never be capable of pleasing someone who is determined to be miserable, no matter how hard you try to be their friend. At some point, a toxic employee will bypass your new hire screening safeguards, fool your gut, and will make you question your ability to judge a person’s character. (Fun fact: An estimated 10% of the population are sociopaths.)

Some managers and salon owners go into “panic mode,” doing whatever they can to earn the employee’s favor again. Some will allow those toxic employees to influence their decisions.

Don’t go down that road.

Your decisions should always be made with two things in mind: what’s best for the business, and what’s fair to your employees. Not all of your decisions will be popular ones. Don’t complicate your life and undermine yourself by adding avoidable difficulties.

Have you ever crossed the line with your employees before? How did it go? Tell us in the comments!

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Beauty industry survivalist, salon crisis interventionist, tactical verb-weapon specialist, and the leader of at least a hundred workplace revolutions, Tina Alberino is known as much for her extensive knowledge as for her sarcastic wit and mercilessly straightforward style. She’s the author of the book The Beauty Industry Survival Guide and the blog This Ugly Beauty Business. When she’s not writing, educating, or consulting, she can be found overthinking everything, identifying problems people didn’t know existed, and stubbornly working to change the things she cannot accept.


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