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.

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