Boss-Employee Relationship Etiquette

Mature business woman in a meeting with employees.
It is possible for a supervisor to have a professional yet friendly relationship with employees. Ezra Bailey / Getty Images

While it’s essential to foster positive relationships between supervisors and their staff, there are some things you need to consider. Being best friends with your boss is generally not a good idea, but you can get to know her on a personal level as long as you understand there are some professional boundaries you should never cross.

Friendship Between the Boss and Employees

While it’s possible, it’s not advised for supervisors and the people who report to them become close personal friends.

Bosses are people too, and they have feelings that can interfere with job evaluations and assignments. Even when they’re able to put those feelings aside, other people may perceive them as showing favoritism, and that can hurt the morale of the entire department.

Tips for the Boss

If you supervise people you need to be cautious about what you say, how you act, and how involved you get in your employees’ lives. It can be quite a precarious balancing act.

Here are some tips for bosses:

  • Be friendly. This doesn’t mean sitting down with the people you supervise and dishing about the weekend. Instead, offer a friendly greeting each day, be sincerely interested in anything the person says that affects his or her job, and be available when needed. It’s good to make small talk as long as it doesn’t come across as prying or inviting too much information.
  • Maintain a friendly but professional demeanor. Your body language shows your staff more than you realize, so try not to scowl or have a harsh look on your face when communicating with them. Be open, smile often, and show empathy during conversation and other interaction.
  • Don’t hide. Don’t sit in your office behind a closed door all day. This gives your employees the feeling that you either don’t care about them or don’t want to be bothered with the day-to-day events in the workplace.
  • Be open. If you have room in your office, you might consider having a couple of chairs or a chair and sofa in a comfortable seating arrangement so you can have more relaxed conversations. If you don’t have room, consider pulling your chair around from behind your desk to remove the barrier that might intimidate those who work for you.
  • Offer more compliments than complaints. You might assume that people only need to know when they’re doing something wrong, but that’s not the case. When people hear about the good things they’re doing and get credit for their accomplishments, they’re typically more open to taking criticisms and improving.
  • Use caution when commenting about their appearance. In other words, avoid getting too personal when complimenting or calling someone out about what they’re wearing or how they look. You might say something like, “You look very professional today,” instead of “That top really makes your blue eyes pop.”
  • Never gossip. When there’s an issue among your employees, it’s fine to ask question and find out what’s going on. However, there’s a line you should never cross when discussing coworkers with each other. You’re better off not voicing your opinion or allowing the discussion to veer off into a realm that might be considered gossipy.
  • Set an example. Your employees will look to you for hints on how to act in the office, how to dress, and other important professional qualities while they’re at work. Whether you like it or not, as a supervisor, you're a role model.
  • Use extreme caution on social media. While it’s often acceptable to “friend” or “follow” your employees on the various social media sites, you have to be extra careful to always present yourself in a professional manner. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing their respect.
  • Be the first to leave a social event. Don’t hang around a party too long, or your risk crossing the line of impropriety. If you’re the boss, you may attend the same social events as your employees. However, you need to conduct yourself in a way that represents your position with the company. This means no excessive drinking, telling off-color jokes, or doing anything the goes against the company’s policies.

Tips for the Employee

As an employee, you are responsible for the relationships you form at the office, and this includes how you interact with your boss. Whether you think your supervisor is the best thing ever or you dread seeing her everyday, you still need to maintain your professionalism in the most positive manner possible.

Here are some tips for employees:

  • Arrive on time. One of the things an employee can do to get off on the wrong foot with her boss is to frequently show up late. Sure, there are some extenuating circumstances that may cause you to be behind occasionally, but don’t make that the norm. If you are on time everyday, your boss will know you can be counted on.
  • Show respect. Even if you know your boss had a wild and crazy weekend, at the office, she is still your supervisor. Be respectful for her position, even if you don’t see her as someone you would want to emulate.
  • Keep secrets. Most businesses require a certain amount of confidentiality to keep their competitive edge. Trustworthiness is one of the most valuable commodities an employee can have.
  • Don’t be arrogant about anything. It might be common knowledge that you and the boss have been friends for years, or you might be a member of the same club. There’s still no reason to act snobby about it. Not only will your coworkers resent your arrogance your boss will know you’re acting this way, and she might find ways to put distance between you and her.
  • Never interrupt. Even if you know more than the boss does, when she discusses something in a meeting or in a one-on-one, give her a chance to finish what she is saying. And if you have to speak up, do so in a polite manner.
  • Be humble enough to apologize. If you are mistaken about something or you make an error on your job, be the one to call yourself out and apologize for the mistake. That way, you can move on without having to worry or feel guilty. Plus the boss will see you as an honest and humble person who doesn’t try to cover your tracks.

When a Coworker Becomes the Boss

If you go from being part of a group of coworkers to being in charge of them, things can get tricky if you’re also friends with them. You don’t want to suddenly turn your back on your buddies, but you should let them know that you are in a different role. Those who are true professionals will understand. Don’t let those who resent you hurt your feelings.

When one of your coworkers becomes the boss, respect his position. Continue to be friendly with him, but don’t expect him to pal around with you as he once did because that could put both of you in an awkward position. Let him know that you understand his new role, and you’ll do everything you can to make the transition as painless as possible.

Company Policies

Your company might have some policies regarding the relationships between supervisors and those who work under them. Learn what they are and follow them to a T, even if you don’t agree with them.