My boss is leaving and I’m about to be promoted into her position, managing our team. I’m very excited about it and confident I’ll be able to do the job well, except that I’m not sure what it will mean for my friendship with one of my co-workers.
Currently, “Casey” and I are peers. We both started working here about three years ago, and we’ve become pretty good friends in that time. We talk about work and our personal lives, text a fair amount, and generally know a lot about each other. Pre-COVID, we got lunch together all the time and went out for drinks together every month or so. Neither of us has ever had any supervisory authority over the other, so all this has always been fine. When I was applying for my boss’s position, I knew it might change things with Casey if I got the job, but I figured we would work it out somehow.
Now, though, I’m worried about how exactly to do that. I’ll be managing Casey and three other people. I get along well with the other three, but I wouldn’t say they’re outside-of-work friends in the way she is. I’m not worried that I’ll favor Casey, but I am worried that the others might think I will. If it matters, so far they’ve all said nice things about my promotion. (But I also know they would probably do that no matter what they really thought — who’s going to tell their new boss they’re apprehensive about working for her?)
I also know that having Casey report to me will change our friendship, but I’m not sure what that should look like. I asked my boss who’s leaving, and she said it’s not realistic to expect to have the same relationships once I’m in charge. I get that in theory … but it feels like Casey and I are both mature enough that we can stay friends without it causing problems. I know I can’t give her special treatment (nor would I want to) and I don’t think she would expect it. Am I off-base in thinking we can stay friends?
I’m especially worried because Casey and I haven’t talked about this yet, and I don’t know if she’s assuming everything will stay the same.
Yeah, the friendship will have to change.
I know that sucks! But there’s no way around it.
You can of course continue to have a warm, friendly relationship with Casey; that’s fine. But friendly is different from friends. The social texting, the regular one-on-one lunches and drinks, and the sharing a lot about your personal lives — that’s all stuff that you’re going to need to pull way back on. That’s not to say you can never send each other a funny text or that you have to relate to each other like robots; that’s not the case. But think “colleague who I enjoy working with,” not “close friend.”
There are so many reasons for that. To start, think about the friendship from the perspective of the rest of your team. If your boss was close friends with one team member and not the others — and was regularly having private lunches and drinks with that person — would you really not be concerned that your co-worker had special access to your boss that you didn’t have? Wouldn’t you wonder about the potential for favoritism and how their friendship might affect things like assignments, feedback, and recognition? If that co-worker got a project that you really wanted, would you trust that she had earned it on merit or would you wonder if the friendship with your boss played a role? If you had an issue with that co-worker, would you feel comfortable talking to your boss about it or would you worry that your concerns wouldn’t get a fair hearing because of their friendship?
There’s also the impact on Casey herself. Being friends with the boss can start out seeming like a pretty good perk, but can create a lot of difficulties. For one thing, the friendship is now inherently uneven; her job will be in part to prioritize what you want over what she wants, and your job will be to judge her and her work. That kind of power dynamic isn’t a healthy one in a friendship. Casey also deserves a boss who can give her unbiased feedback and who won’t need to worry about how it might affect the two of them outside of work. (You might think you won’t have any trouble giving unbiased feedback. All I can say is, everyone in your shoes thinks that at first. But try having to deliver difficult criticism when you know you’ll need to face the person over drinks in a few hours, or when you know she’s going through a hard time with a partner. Feedback tends to get watered down.) Casey’s also entitled to have boundaries with her manager — to be able to call in sick without a boss who knows she was out late the night before, or to be able to vent about her job (or her boss!) without worrying her friend will take that personally. And if she ever cools on the friendship, she shouldn’t need to worry about how that could affect her professionally.
Then there’s the impact on you. Managing people is hard enough when you only have to worry about the manager/employee relationship. It’s so much harder when you also have to navigate the complications of a friendship. As Casey’s manager, you’ll have a professional obligation to treat her the same as everyone else, give her constructive feedback, and make decisions that could affect her livelihood. You could even need to fire or lay her off one day. Even if you think you can do all that impartially while remaining her friend, other people are unlikely to believe you can, so you’ll have a perception problem on your hands. You’re also going to know things that you can’t share with Casey, even if you want to and even if they could significantly affect her. You might have to make decisions that will impact her job in ways she doesn’t like, and you’ve got to be able to do that without worrying about hurting a friend’s feelings.
So the relationship does have to change, and the more openly you and Casey can talk about that, the easier it will probably go. The best thing you can do is to initiate a conversation about it. I’d say something like, “I’ve been thinking about how our relationship will need to change once I’m managing the team. I don’t want other people to worry about favoritism, and I don’t want either of us to be in an awkward situation where we’re never sure what the boundaries should be. My thought is that we’ve got to pull back and have more professional boundaries as long as we’re in these roles — but if at some point one of us changes jobs, I hope we can resume a friendship again.”
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.