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Friendship Between Supervisors and Subordinates

Christine McDade is a human resource professional (PHR & SHRM-CP) with over 20 years in the public sector.

Can managers hang out with employees outside of work?

Can managers hang out with employees outside of work?

Building relationships in the workplace is a common occurrence for employees. Working side by side to reach common goals both professionally and strategically gives employees the opportunity to get to know one another on a personal level. These relationships develop into friendships as trust and camaraderie build over time between the employees.

The same sort of relationships develop between supervisors and the employees they supervise. While it is easy to understand how the same sort of friendships can develop between the leader and the employee, it is important for the supervisor to discern between friendship and a supervisory relationship.

Failing to recognize the professionalism that is required can lead to the perception of favoritism and general disharmony in the workplace.

Transitional Period for Newly Promoted Supervisors

Employees who advance in their careers through a promotion from a non-supervisory to a supervisory role must learn to make that leap with all of the new responsibilities. There is a transitional period that employees in such a situation must experience when they start their new leadership role.

For the person who was previously their coworker, working side by side with them, there is a learning curve of acceptance when supervisors earn their stripes by filling that new leadership role amongst their peers.

Taking lunch breaks with select employees who a supervisor considers to be their friends can lead others to allege favoritism.

Taking lunch breaks with select employees who a supervisor considers to be their friends can lead others to allege favoritism.


A common complaint that Human Resources professionals often hear from a disgruntled employee is that their supervisor practices favoritism in the workplace. Supervisors must always be aware of the appearance of favoritism toward others.

Preferential treatment or perceived favoritism to employees can be a real problem for the morale of those who must work side by side of the designated "pets" in the group. Gossiping and sharing of ill feelings about the favoritism between the boss and certain employees can cause significant disruptions in the workplace.

Consequently, the work will be affected negatively and goals will, therefore, not be attained.

Supervisors who distribute work assignments and projects in an unequal manner are displaying favoritism which is bound to be disastrous for the workplace.

Supervisors who distribute work assignments and projects in an unequal manner are displaying favoritism which is bound to be disastrous for the workplace.

Workplace Activities that Supervisors Should Avoid

While no one can totally control what perceptions employees have toward an existing work relationship between a supervisor and coworkers, there are actions and activities that supervisors can avoid in order to help prevent unfair and unjust conclusions being drawn by others. Consider the following:

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  • Socializing with employees outside of work. While it may be tempting to socialize with employees with whom a friendship has developed, doing so during non-business hours, outside of the workplace, can raise many eyebrows. Participating in "happy hour" with a subordinate at the local bar and grille can make life not so happy for this supervisor who will be viewed back at the office as having a special relationship with this particular employee. When the employee later receives some sort of positive feedback from the supervisor in front of others in the workplace, a likely conclusion will be made by others who will feel that the kudos are being given because of the personal relationship the two have.
  • Offering preferential work projects or assignments. When a supervisor has a friendship with a subordinate, there is likely to be a temptation to give this person the "better" assignment and less taxing work because of the feelings the supervisor has toward the person. Naturally, others in the workplace will witness the assignment of such work to the "friend" and will resent the directive. While the supervisor may be selecting this employee for a particular job due to special skills and experience the employee has, all qualifications and obvious reasons for selection of this employee will be cast aside by a work environment that views such an assignment as nothing more than favoritism.
  • Taking lunch breaks and smoke breaks with select employees. A common mistake supervisors often make is to spend lunch, rest, smoke breaks, etc. with certain employees while not spending such time with the others. What is good for one employee, should be good for all. That is to say, if one chooses to spend a break with one particular employee, there should be an effort to spend time with others equally. Often, the conversation that is had during these breaks will be centered around work subjects. These opportunities to discuss work should be afforded to all.
  • Overlooking poor performance or misconduct. Supervisors unconsciously may be more lenient in the addressing of poor performance or misconduct. Consequently, these employees may be given more chances and opportunities to correct the poor behavior, if the poor performance is addressed at all. Performance evaluations may also be done incorrectly in that they do not truly cite the performance issues that are actually occurring.
  • Unequal treatment in how disciplinary procedures are handed out to employees. One extreme example of why supervisors should not befriend a subordinate is that there may come a time when the supervisor must discipline an employee who is considered a friend. Failing to do so is an example of an action that many supervisors would do to avoid an uncomfortable situation with the employee who is their friend.
  • Participating in office gossip. The more time a supervisor spends with a subordinate who becomes more than just an acquaintance, the more likely the supervisor will become familiar with the opinions that person has about others and situations in the office. A supervisor will be drawn into conversations with gossip and bashing of others. Supervisors must recognize the trouble such behavior can bring to the work atmosphere.
  • Offering Gifts. As a supervisor, one should not pick out one subordinate to give gifts to celebrate a birthday or holiday. For example, during the holiday season, it is important to make sure everyone receives the same gifts and is not left out. there should not be an exchange without everyone receiving something. The supervisor should be responsible for making sure no preferential behavior is displayed by bringing in something special for the select few in the office.
  • Unequal distribution of raises and other monetary rewards. Because there will be a desire for supervisors to see those in the workplace that they like to be successful, supervisors should be careful to not give raises or bonuses arbitrarily. Making business decisions for business reasons will alleviate the appearance of inappropriate raises.

To avoid the appearance of favoritism, supervisors must be aware of their actions throughout the day in all that they do both in and out of the office.

The Buck Stops Here!

The important point for supervisors to remember is that they are the ones responsible for the "big picture" in the workplace. As the leadership of a team, crew, group, etc., supervisors are responsible for getting the work done.

When there is a problem with the end result, the CEO or higher up is not going to look toward the employee for a reason for the failure of the work. Rather, they will seek out the supervisor who is running the show. For that reason, it is important to maintain an ethical approach to working with all employees.

Avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above will assist the supervisor in running a productive work team without the accusation of favoritism from employees in the workplace.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2012 Christine McDade


Hesham Taha on February 17, 2019:

Great essay yet very simple & clear.

Christine McDade (author) from Southwest Florida on October 29, 2012:

Thanks for the comment. It is easy to understand how friendship can make life tricky in the workplace.

Claudia Porter on October 29, 2012:

Awesome info here and really important. Supervisors need to be really careful and can get into big trouble if they aren't. Good hub! Voted up.

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