• Sasha Struthers

Employees Are Not Friends- A Hard Reality.

I will likely get challenged on this and I will firmly stand by what I have boldly said. Employees are not friends. And let me explain what I mean.

Everyone should be friendly, thats also simply being cordial. But employees are subordinates. I see with my clients all the time, they worry too much on being liked and not enough on ensuring employees are doing what they are hired to do- work. I've defended several employers who were sued by their employee "friends." The employer felt blinded sided when the employee sued them and I've never had a case in which the parties remained friends afterwards. For obvious reasons.

Here is brief summary of the employment lawsuits between "friends" I have dealt with.

  • Best friend of 20 years was key employee. Boss notices friend is slacking on the job. friend sued employer for wages and retaliation.

  • Two men meet at a coffee shop, have things in common. Barista comes to work boss gives friend free workspace, company car, Ducati at a discount and is his friend. Friend sues him for back wages and a gambit of laws that the employee/friend actually violated.

  • Couple start dating. Woman loses her job. Boyfriend hires her. She is not a good girlfriend or employee, as the man finds out. Girlfriend is fired, they break up, and he gets sued for employment claims, including harassment.

  • Two men know each other for a long time. The one man hires the other to do the marketing for his business. He slacks on the work, wants more money and reduced hours. Man lets the friend go. Man gets sued for wage and hour violations.

  • Man hires friend to help him remodel a part of his house. Friend sues man for wage and hour violations and files a workers' compensation claim for an injury that happened at a totally different job site for totally different people.

There are more, but it is essentially the same, you see the pattern. Here are some cautions to consider before hiring a friend or becoming friends with an employee.

Understand the meaning of subordinate.

Subordinate is not a fun word, but it is an accurate word. When you hire an employee they fall in rank below you. Even your best performing, key employee still answers to you. This does not mean you throw your weight around and belittle your employees. That is a no no. You need to discipline employees when they do something wrong and encourage them when they do something well. But it should be clear you are the boss.

Set expectations early on.

You lose a lot of power with employees very early on if you don't set expectations right away. If you have workplace policies be sure employees are told of them and you the employer actually enforce them. A different topic for a different blog, but workplace policies are worthless if they are not enforced. Most importantly, apply the rules equally to all.

Focus on providing a more effective work environment.

Employers often think employees do well or work harder because the employer has taken a personal interest in their life. That is not the case. Employees do well with the following:

  • Clear job descriptions;

  • Have the tools necessary to do the job;

  • Don't feel overly pressured by their boss;

  • Receive sufficient instructions;

  • Feel comfortable asking for help;

  • Get constructive feedback;

  • Consideration of their opinions on how to improve workflows.

Keep employees' personal lives personal.

Water cooler talk is acceptable and common. But if it starts to get too personal or uncomfortable, its best to ask that employee to keep their personal stuff to themselves or not discuss on the clock. If these personal problems get in the way of their work you will want to have a private conversation with the employee to discuss. Follow your intuition on this. You want employees to get along with each other, but you don't want too much chit chat that can be distracting. You also want employees to be transparent about their ability to work.

Don't hire friends in the first place.

This is a brave rule on my part, but it is some good advice. There is an age old saying "familiarity breeds contempt." It is one thing to talk to a friend about work. It is a whole other level of human emotion to have to rely on that same friend to do the work. Then you need to pay them and treat them equally with other employees. Friends almost always expect favoritism. Friends want to work less and get paid more. They want breaks, no accountability and to never be called out. Calling out a friend/employee hurts their feelings. The tension that arises is rarely relaxed until the employee either gets fired, leaves on their own or sues and there is a settlement. I could go on for a very long time about this, but just spare yourself the grief and don't hire friends if you want to keep them as friends. Friends and money don't mesh well. Friends get comfortable and complacent and that is the antithesis of productivity.

Don't become friends with employees.

Very similar to my last two points, be very wary of starting friendships with employees. It is hard sometimes. You see them a lot. You have things in common. They seem swell. But the previously mentioned issues of expectations on the employee's side grows (favoritism, more pay, less work, etc.). It is very hard for people to separate work and friendship in the employment context.

Employees may get very comfortable with the boss and start to share their personal life, money, relationship, home life or other problems. Naturally, the response is to be empathetic. Empathy goes a very long way in employer/employee dynamics, but it is a fine line. What you want to avoid is being intermeshed with an employee's personal life (friendship) that there is no longer the distinction you are the boss. Employers get taken advantage of in the context of being overly generous with time, energy and money.

Company morale is worth its weight in gold, so protect it.

The largest issue has nothing to do with the employee/ friend, but what your other employees are perceiving and feeling. There is a prevailing trend towards heavily catering to employees, such as catered meals, endless supply of coffee on tap, company trips, collective mediation and so on. Companies get creative. But what really keeps employees going is fairness. That word is very simple and extremely important. Employees do their best when they feel they are being treated fairly. Fairness not only in pay but in treatment. When employees see another employee get preferred treatment (less discipline, workload, responsibility or more help) it really chaps their hide resulting in reduced staff and productivity. It is hard to maintain fairness when you are overly friendly with one employee to the exclusion or dismissal of others.


There may be exceptions to the rule and in that case you are very lucky. By and large, friendships between employee and employer are a slippery slope that I often see end in lawsuits. Employers don't need to be afraid of employees, just be cautious. The lack of boundaries in work places is often times why an employer gets sued. Keeping things professional and focused on work makes it much easier to manage employees.

If you have any employee issues, employment law questions or questions regarding this post feel free to reach out to me. You may contact me by phone at (818) 306-0686 or by email at sasha@struthers.legal

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The information in this post is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this post should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.