Blurring the Professional and Personal Lines at Work

I recently had dinner with a CEO of a fast-growing startup. He told me that he wants his employees to have deep, emotional relationships with each other, which often means becoming great friends outside of work. He wants his employees going to each other’s weddings. He wants to blur the lines that normally separate “colleague” and “personal friend.”

This value manifests at his company in at least two ways. The first is simply the language he uses, saying things like, “I want you all to be great friends outside of work!” or “It’s awesome that Joe went to David’s wedding.” The second is by the team activities he schedules. For example, “Let’s grab beers at the bar after work” or “Let’s all do a hike on Sunday.”

I wrote recently about the values that distinctively shape a culture. They aren’t values you see on official company press releases like “integrity” or “excellence.” Rather, they’re ideas that have both pros and cons. For example, transparency up and down the org chart has upside and downside, so as a value and policy it uniquely shapes those companies that embrace it. Consensus-driven decision making is another example of a value that has upside and downside.

This particular example — promoting social activities that blur the lines at work so that there isn’t as as strong a distinction between “friends” and “colleagues” — is another solid example of a cultural value with both pros and cons.

The pros to blurring the social lines among your employees are fairly obvious:

  • Stronger trust among the team. When you hang out in non-work settings, you tend to get to know other side of someone and this greater familiarity likely leads to greater trust when back at the office.
  • Improved communication. More time together, more time communicating. More communication is always a good thing.
  • Better employee engagement and retention if employees feel like some of their best friends are at work. For someone who has great friends at work, it’s more than a job and it’s more than the company mission. It’s about the deep relationships he or she is forming. Presumably, this translates into superior engagement on the job and higher overall happiness.

The cons to blurring the lines are more subtle:

  • Sexism and tricky gender dynamics. It’s exceedingly hard for women and men to be close personal friends in general due to sexual tension. This is a fact of life: see this famous clip from When Harry Met Sally. So there’s necessarily awkwardness in a work culture that promotes employees chumming it up in personal settings. Popular after work activities like “let’s all grab beers at a bar” can create awkwardness for female employees if they’re in the distinct minority. Sadly, some male leaders, recognizing potential awkwardness of co-ed out-of-office socializing, make it easy for themselves: they invite only other guys to the bar to watch the game. This greases a two-tier culture: the men are buddy-buddy, hanging out after work and on the weekends, and the women, with no company-organized outings to facilitate off-hours bonding, don’t forge the same tight bonds. By the way, the CEO whose blur the lines philosophy inspired this post has roughly 50 employees, 85% of whom are men.
  • Many employees prefer boundaries. Some people don’t want to grab beers with colleagues after work. Some people don’t want to hike with co-workers on the weekend, especially folks with families. Sure, it’s not a big deal for people to decline the weekend hiking invitation, but just receiving those invitations and feeling pressure to go on them can provoke guilt and light weight irritation. A culture where everyone is expected to be friends outside of work might repel prospective high-talent employees who want more work/life separation. Given the kinds of people who work at startups, entrepreneurs tend to promote a line blurring culture in the early days, but this is harder to maintain as a company scales and needs to draw on a more diverse and older portion of the professional population.

Personally, I blur the lines between professional and personal in many of relationships, which is to say some of my best personal friends I met originally in a professional context or are people with whom I still work professionally. But making this instinct a part of a corporate culture raises different considerations.

Bottom Line: Within a company, there are obvious benefits and less-understood risks to suggesting employees become close personal friends outside of work an explicit part of the culture. Male CEOs in male-dominated companies should be especially aware of the downsides, as should startup CEOs who need to attract an increasingly diverse professional population as they grow.

6 Responses to Blurring the Professional and Personal Lines at Work

  1. Rebecca says:

    Very insightful post Ben. I also blur the lines between professional & personal — many of my best friends (of both genders), I met at work!

    I would add one more big downside to encouraging everyone to have personal relationships is that it makes it much harder to fire and / or promote people.

    In my experience, firing a “best friend” at work has huge negative consequences on those that were close to them. If the company was forged on extremely tight bonds, one of these alone could undermine the culture.

    On the other hand, I lost one of my best workers / friends in a working environment where he ended up reporting to me, after previously being a peer. While that’s always a complicated situation, the fact that we were close friends made it significantly harder, IMO.

    Cheers,
    Rebecca

    Reply
  2. Jules says:

    c

    Reply
  3. Jules says:

    Apologies for the “c” post above. I accidentally deleted a longer response.

    You and Rebecca have already come up with some thoughtful pros and cons. I find it tough enough to navigate the boundaries between personal and professional relationships as an individual, let alone as a leader trying to encourage a certain kind of workplace culture. I just want to chime in with a few other potential cons that leaders should consider before implementing policies aimed at blurring these lines.

    1) Increased conformity/Lack of diverse perspectives
    It’s natural to hire people who will fit into an existing team dynamic, but the additional expectation that employees should be best friends may lead people to overemphasize social factors when hiring. This could lead to a more homogenous workforce, which would be a shame since diverse perspectives, communication styles, backgrounds, and problem-solving approaches can foster creativity and lead to better outcomes.

    2) Smaller networking pool
    If employees spend a large chunk of social time with each other, they’re not spending that time making or maintaining outside friendships. This can mean smaller extended networks, which can affect recruiting and hiring efforts.

    3) Alienated parents
    What happens to people with family obligations (kids, ill relatives, aging parents) when there’s an expectation that good employees will invest extra time in social activities outside of work?

    4) Encouragement of inappropriate boundaries
    This wouldn’t affect all companies, but I’ve seen and experienced a range of problems in the workplace related to overlapping personal and professional boundaries, from wildly inappropriate oversharing habits to gossipy cliques. Management’s approach in trying to foster closer relationships could either fuel these kinds of situations or help to mitigate them. For example, could a particular policy to encourage closer interpersonal relationships undermine an employee’s efforts to set boundaries with a colleague who seeks emotional support to an extent that it affects their working relationship? How would that situation be handled?

    Just some thoughts.

    Reply
  4. Jules says:

    Saw this relevant New York Times article and thought I’d come back to share it: link to nytimes.com

    Reply
  5. Claire says:

    Key problem for me is that the manager/owner feels the need to drive this blending of personal and professional. This tends to make it more artificial and more obligatory for employees anyway, regardless of their disposition. If it isn’t driven from the top it leaves more space for the pros of people mixing the two (if they are naturally inclined to do so) without overtly alienating those who don’t wish to mix. Personally I don’t like to mix the two – I make friends at work but always protect my weekends! I also avoid applying for any jobs that tout free beer and pizza on Fridays as a primary benefit.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *