Can Men and Women Be Friends at Work?

Real leadership requires a willingness (and ability) to go deep with other human beings. But when it’s a man a woman, going deep can get scary fast. Connection can be costly. Being friends can easily cross a line. Distance comes with a price as well.

The professional distance thing has always been tricky for me. I get the rules. I’m a SHRM certified HR professional and spent years in HR roles. I also understand the logic of keeping professional distance, particularly between men and women. I’ve seen the disastrous consequences of inappropriate relationships. I’ve fired more than one leader for a stupid romantic stunt. Love and work don’t mix. But connection and work do. And there’s the rub.

The Problem With Professional Distance

“Don’t stand so close to me” –The Police

Lots of HR blogs provide the legal guidance and rules for keeping professional distance. I even stumbled on a Professional Distance and Empathy Guided Imagery Script. I’ve read several male leaders/bloggers who have shared their “rules” for professional relationships with women.“never dine alone with a woman,” “never travel with a woman etc.” I get it, and respect their choices.

And at the same time, I worry about what’s lost. Leadership is relational. If you’re a male leader who has big rules about being friends with women, but not with men (or vice versa), with whom do you build deeper connection and trust? Who becomes your go-to guy? Your good intentions have side effects, and the “good-ole-boy” network unintentionally deepens.

In Defense of Real Connection

Several “employees” (both men and women) that worked for me once upon a time, have developed into lifelong friends. I have deep relationships with male co-workers that last well beyond our current roles. We still have lunch, with no “business reason” to do so. Of course, those “no reason” lunches typically turn into a great networking opportunities, a brainstorming session, or getting unstuck. It’s cool. And if it ever feels less than cool (which every now and then it has), I back away fast, and invest elsewhere. Navigating a few awkward situations is worth it, for the hundreds of important connections that might otherwise have been avoided.

Even when I’m the boss, I push the boundaries. I get close to my team. I invite them to my home, they get to know my family. We talk about their dreams, their lives, and the struggles they have with their kids. I do too. We connect. We build trust. We grow.

Yes, we travel together and eat dinner with whomever is on the trip. We have boundaries, but we also have deep conversations about topics that matter. The best conversations are often one-on-one, in a relaxed environment.

If we worry too much about over-connecting, I would end up in an Applebees with my Blackberry and he would end up in the Chiles with his iPad, and we both lose an opportunity to grow as leaders and human beings. And, If I don’t have the same concerns with my female team members, and we co-dine, I then grow more connected to them, which could lead to inadvertant bias down the road.

Of course, never drink too much wine. That’s a recipe for disaster, no matter with whom you dine.

Benefits and Risks of Building Deeper Relationships

Becoming “friends” or connecting at any level with people at work is risky, and worth it. Know yourself and your situation. Be honest with your feelings, and know the risks and benefits.

BENEFITS RISKS
  • Greater understanding
  • Balancing roles 
  • Deeper trust
  • Partiality 
  • Support
  • Concerned spouses
  • Engagement
  • One thing leads to another
  • Richer Problem Solving
  • Legal action

Guidelines For Being Friends at Work

Workplace relationships require situational leadership, good judgement, and common sense. Oh yes, and keeping your hormones in check.

  1. Talk to your significant other and agree on an approach (My husband, Marcus, has endorsed this post.)
  2. Be open with your significant other about your work relationships and communications
  3. Let the relationship evolve over time
  4. Keep open communication about professional boundaries
  5. Talk about your commitment to your significant other and your investment in your family
  6. Don’t entertain negative conversations about their significant other (or yours)
  7. If you feel romantic attraction, revert to professional distance immediately

Professional distance or professional intimacy is a leadership choice. Developing more intimate professional relationships also means knowing and trusting yourself, having healthy, trusting and supportive relationships at home, and knowing when to back off. You won’t want to develop deeper relationships with everyone for a variety of reasons. But when it feels right, I worry about letting a universal set of gender-based “rules” get in the way.

I know this is controversial, so I’m hoping for a candid and healthy dialogue from (and for) the LGL community.

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Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Career & Learning and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

50 Comments

  1. Excellent post, Karin! This is an issue I’ve struggled with as well. You nailed it when you say leadership is relational. Some of my former reports have grown into best friends. It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s good to open up the topic for discussion.

  2. Karin. A timely post. Intimacy with co-workers in not problematic in one sense-it makes no sense to do that. Professional intimacy. Too much of it is also not very good, too little is not recommended either. In between there is a dynamic solution. You move towards more or less, depending on the partner. If professional intimacy is not abused you increase it. If not, you decrease it. there is a free zone to move within, depending on the situation.

  3. Really like this post it pins down one of those ‘not discussable’ questions. I completely agree about leadership being relational. How can we ever have real equality if leaders are worried about having dinner together if they happen to be of a different gender/sexual preference. So your list is crucial. Oh and so is being honest with yourself. If you feel something get out of the areas of temptation and don’t have too much wine!

  4. Hmmmmm. I take it this was the post you mentioned on Twitter? 🙂

    Three thoughts

    1. I fall right in the middle of the distance-closeness spectrum.

    2. Love the 7 tips. Regardless of where you fall (total distance or very close), these are still great tips. Even if you maintain extreme distance, it’s still good to talk to your spouse about relationships (all of them…men and women…duh…it’s your spouse). And it’s important to let it evolve. I wouldn’t get too close to anyone early on. And #7 is key.

    3. This topic is like any aspect of leadership…you need to revisit it frequently. Am I too close? Am I too distant? If one or the other, what are my action steps? Who do I need to talk to? etc.

    • Matt, Thanks so much. Yes, the comments on your post inspired this 😉 I love when one conversation leads to another. You raise very important points here. I agree, it’s just so important to revisit it frequently and be honest with yourself.

    • And doesn’t this also point toward the necessity of having a strong leadership *team*? With healthy conversations and prudent behavior, both men and women can partake of the benefits of mentorship, challenges, intimate conversations (hopes, fears, dreams, desires).

      But boy, do the guys need to be careful. It’s a constant source of amazement to me the number of women who appear to have a chip on their shoulder, and look for any excuse to bring a member of what they perceive as the good ol’ boy network down.

      Great post, great conversation, thanks to all.

  5. Always appreciate your honesty. I reccently had a great boss that I traveled with, and as you said we are much closer professionally and have developed a mutual respect and trust. He has the same relationship with many of his reports, and they all felt like he sincerely cared about them, and they love working for him and they likie to make him look good (they really worked!). It was difficult when he had to let one of my team mates go during a period of downsizing- they had become very close. She was fortunate enough to find another job in the company and they remain friends.

    • Leah, you add a really important component to the conversation. It’s much harder to do the hard boss stuff when you’ve developed a deeper relationship. It’s tricky, but I believe it’s worth it.

  6. This is a very important issue and I think you have framed it very well Karin. A significant element to effective leadership is trust. Without some level of mutual trust, one cannot effectively lead.

    You are spot on identifying the 1st, 2nd, and 5th guidelines. A simple rule of thumb here would be if you can’t or won’t talk about it with your significant other, you are probably too close to the line if not over it.

    We are wired as humans to build relationships – we’re simply not meant to go it alone. So I do believe it’s important to build professional relationships in business. Thanks for choosing to deal with this difficult and important element of leadership!

  7. Very interesting post. I think you comment about the old boy network was very interesting. what we are really talking about is a form of intimacy that is non-sexual; the good old boys network,the good old girls network that was so strong in my mothers generation. Very close, but no sex allowed. How do adults get to a level of sharing that allows for growth without crossing the sexual border is such a difficult question to answer.

    • Anne, Yes, it’s tricky… how do we develop real intimacy without danger of crossing inappropriate boundaries. It involves setting comfortable parameters. I am so curious as to how others navigate this.

  8. U r right on. 20 years coaching and consulting have revealed many leaders who have bought into this ‘management myth’ and therefore maintain this ‘fine line’. That draws the line in terms of all that relationship could become, produce, make happen, etc. I preach pretty much the opposite — the relationship cannot be too good, a boss & a buddy absolutely, build the relationship as strongly as u can… And yes I also get all the HR stuff. 🙂

    Good writing/points my friend. Booker

  9. I’ve had the privilege to work for some awesome male leaders. We’ve had to travel, dine and hold one-on-one meeting on the way to a client’s site, and even across the border. I’ve never been worried or intimidated by it because they treated me with respect and as a valued colleague. I understand there are inappropriate situations happening all the time, but I also see that in our “lawsuit happy” society, we have lost our humanity. Establishing good relationships with coworkers creates a superb work environment because people feel valued. Excellent post and discussion!

    • Lily, Great! Glad to hear of your positive experiences. That has been mine as well, working for male bosses. I’ve had some fantastic ones.

    • Karin- you said “That has been mine as well, working for male bosses”. I just wonder if the word boss is inconsistent with leadership? It might be a matter of language for me, but the word boss is heavy on my ear. How do you differentiate a leader from a boss?

  10. It’s not unusual, that’s for sure. I saw it number of times. In fact, I saw so many couples who once worked (or still working) together that sometimes I wonder am I the only person that didn’t meet his wife on the workplace.

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to get too close. In small team it could be OK. But in bigger… it’s dangerous! Male or female, friendship or (romantic) relationship, too much is not OK.

    Why?

    For example, once upon a time, I worked with a female manager and she was in a relationship with one of the male workers. It was something that “everyone knows and no one talks about”

    You could guess what happened when the worker got promoted. He was fast, dedicated, hard-working man. He deserved to be promoted. But I’ve heard numbers of people talking how “the only way to advance in this company is through sex, and it’s not fair, we are just as hard-working as he and …” It was something strange in all that. You could feel the tension. You could see the unsatisfied faces.

    The same happened when one of the “higher bosses” were socializing with one of the workers. They would go to the local cafe to talk about their common hobby (at least I think). I didn’t like either of them, but that’s another story. 😉 However, when they promoted the worker, the mini-revolution aroused in the company. They even used the same words “the only way to get promotion in this company is to be boss puppy/ass-kisser/bootlicker…”

    I don’t like that. I do believe that good relationship with the whole team is a must. But nothing more. Because jealousy and envy are very powerful emotions and I don’t play with that.

    • Marko. Thanks for sharing your important stories, and supporting the counter argument. I am so pleased with the dialogue on both sides of the issue. You are right that when it goes wrong, it is tragic. I have many bad stories in my files. How do you navigate this? Do you create distance between the men and women at equal length? Do you avoid the deeper topics with both sexes? Is it possible to build deeper conversations without the risk? If so, how?

    • Great questions and dialogue. Many situations are jelly-like. They do not have a solid form and this form is inconsistent. I believe this topic is like this. We need to observe and amend. The prevailing environment has a big role to play.
      We should avoid correcting a problem with wrong approaches. Two wrongs do not give a correct answer. Dropping intimacy is wrong. Developing the intimacy is right.

    • Well, for example, big restaurant chains solved it in a productive way. When management finds that two people have a close relationship, one of them get transferred to another restaurant. The message is: “You can have a relationship, but not in the same place.”

  11. I may be a bit like you Karin. I don’t think I could avoid some level of professional intimacy. Without it, going to work in a place without the texture that good (and appropriate) interaction brings to life would be like working in a plain cement room all day. It’s just human to want to socialise.

    Maybe its different here in Australia?
    I think that, compared to some cultures (e.g. the US), we can be more ‘laid back’ about things like this. I’m not saying one is better than the other. In a service situation for example, I don’t want laid back, I want professionalism.

    Having said that, some studies report Australians work longer hours than some other countries. Confounding that observation, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) just ranked Australia as the happiest country this year. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/28/worlds-happiest-countries-2013-australia_n_3347347.html

    So what does all this mean??

    For me; because we are all individuals with different backgrounds and beliefs,,, we need guidelines not rules, and would support Karin’s related comment ‘Professional intimacy requires situational leadership’` (and awareness) as being very practical advice.

    • Dallas, thanks so much for sharing. What a cool article on Australia. I spoke to my husband… he said “that confirms we should move there. 😉
      Situational leadership is at the root of great leadership.

  12. I have different boundaries with different staff. My seasonal college staff….I’m never alone with. But, my assistant director who happens to be female, we do travel and work in the office alone. But we also spend time together as two families. Her husband and her and my wife and me. In fact, I spend time with just him and my wife spends time with just my assistant director.

    I’m sure like most of you, my relationship with my wife and kids comes before every other relationship. So, my family is very present in my workplace. As are the families of my team. My staff are welcome to bring their kids to work…with certain boundaries established. And, when we do have to travel for work, 9 out of 10 times, we take our families. This may not be practical in “corporate” America. Or maybe nobody has tried to be creative enough to make it work. I don’t really know.

    Finally, my wife sits in on at least one of the multiple interviews we do for anyone we are considering hiring for a year round position that I’ll be working closely with. And, she has veto power in the hiring decision. I trust her as my best friend and greatest advisor.

    • Eric, Great, creative examples. I love how you have so much integration between your family life and work life. That is a blessing. I know you have worked hard to achieve that. Your examples of situations are spot on. This stuff takes real maturity, not everyone is ready for that. As always, you add such value to our community. It’s fun to hear from the non-corporate side of the game.

  13. I love this post, Karin. There is so much to say yes to in positive relationships with people of the opposite gender. In many ways, I consider this a signpost of a functional workplace. I have navigated these waters all of my professional life, and am so grateful for the relationships that have flourished over the years. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t – just like with any relationship. When we are intentional, mindful and there is honesty and openness with one’s self and significant others, it can work. I know that my well-being and the well-being of others has been enhanced by seizing the moments for more engagement, positive emotion, meaningful interactions and positive accomplishments, regardless of gender. It is a marker of real leadership to go there, with integrity.

  14. A specific example: When I left a corporate job to start my consulting career, I will never forget the slightly awkward yet honored feeling that I had when a male colleague told me he valued our friendship and wanted to remain in touch and did not want to lose the friendship because I was leaving the job. He was perceptive and immediately saw that I was a little unsure of his intent. Such a gentle soul and a well spoken person – he said his feelings were platonic and no less important. We did stay in touch and enjoyed collaborating on many projects over the years. When we were not collaborating on a project, we would still have lunch together occasionally or talk on the phone. He had a great sense of humor – dry and situational, and we laughed a lot. Sadly, he died last year. I think of him often and remember him for these wise words, “we are given gifts and it is important that we give back at the gift level.” That relationship taught me the potential and the possibilities of professional intimacy – perhaps a little awkward to navigate at first but well worth the journey.

  15. I think this probably has a lot to do with the make up of the team or workplace. I currently work with a group of people who are in healthy, happy relationships. We are professionally intimate in part because people are happy with their lives. As a result we talk about the things that are important to us including family and yes, even religion which creates a further intimacy. Just yesterday during a meeting the head of the company told me about how he and his wife decided not to find out the gender of their baby and how that was holding up the purchasing of items for the nursery. Not only does this further our relationship, I think it helps me to relate better to his wife who I see several times each year.

    I also think that too much of this is about what other people think. Sometimes things are a big deal because we make them a big deal. Male bosses don’t want to have dinner out of town with female subordinates, why? They don’t trust their own reactions, they don’t trust the other person’s reactions, the don’t trust spouse reactions, or they think clients will frown on it? No one in the restaurant knows or cares what happens between them and if everyone else behaves as a reasonable adult, then maybe we are creating problems that don’t exist.

    One more story. Early this year I had to go out of town with a male subordinate who is a little more than 20 years younger than I. We went to dinner and spent less than 50% of the time talking about work. At the end of the dinner, I said something about being sorry he had to have dinner with someone as old as his mother. He laughed and said he didn’t see me that way. I said that was nice but everyone in restaurant thought he was having dinner with his mother.

    I think the value of the relationship outweighs the small chance that someone on the outside will see a problem where none exist. The question is are the people inside the relationship happy with the result? Maybe we need to stop over thinking the issue and talk to each other?

  16. Bonnie, what a powerful comment. Fantastic stories. I love the thinking of the inside and outside view, “I think the value of the relationship outweighs the small chance that someone on the outside will see a problem where none exist. The question is are the people inside the relationship happy with the result.” YES!

    Years ago I had dinner with my African American male boss in the deep South. We got a few stares, from couples out dining. We had a good laugh at it. We talked about which would worry them more, that we could potentially be dating, or that he was my boss. We decided it didn’t matter one bit.

  17. I really enjoy the thread of thoughts on this post. Working for a church, I experience this ever-present issue among a staff committed to “moral” behavior. As a mid-thirties, never-been-married female, I often struggle with the professional distance I perceive from the almost all-married male staff with whom I work with. While I respect the intention behind the rules surrounding professional distance, I find it frustrating and isolating. I would enjoy more honest friendships with both males and females who share my passion for ministry!

    • Jennifer, Thanks for adding to the conversation. You’ve gotten to the heart of the matter. I do think this is a significant issue in some church communities. I believe mature adults can deal with grown-up relationships. If they start to feel temptation… then they should deal with that… not start there.

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  19. GREAT POST!

    I believe all great HEART BASED LEADERS know when to step in and when to step out.

    Is it balance act, I am not so sure, it more about weighing each moment and seeing what needs to be done in the present moment.

    I truly believe if you come from the space of the HEART and you Lead From Within and its genuine— you cannot go wrong.

    When I say these words in corporation- eyes roll. But once they see me role model HEART- they get it and want it.

    Be the role models, the mentors, to those who want but do not know how to be it.

    LOVE YOUR POST! GREAT FOOD FOR THOUGHT!

    Lolly

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