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.

  • 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.