Handling a Too-Friendly Boss
QUESTION: MY BOSS IS THE TOUCHY-FEELY TYPE AND IS TRYING TO BE MY FRIEND BUT I’M NOT COMFORTABLE WITH IT. HE SHARES A LOT OF HIS PERSONAL LIFE, ASKS ME ABOUT MINE, MESSAGES ME OUTSIDE OF WORK HOURS, ETC. I’M NEW AT A SMALL COMPANY, EVERYONE IS FRIENDS WITH EVERYBODY, AND THE VIBE IS SOCIAL AND FUN. BUT I DON’T WANT TO BE FRIENDS WITH MY BOSS, I THINK IT’S UNPROFESSIONAL. HOW SHOULD I HANDLE THIS?
ANSWERED BY: JONNA
With so many different generations in the workforce and such a variety of office types, the lines between what stays in the workplace and personal/home life have all but become fuzzy and left to us as individuals to navigate.
First, it’s entirely ok for you to want and maintain a professional relationship with your boss that doesn’t cross into the friend zone. And good for you for realizing that doing so might be hard for someone else to understand and manage. It would be utopia if we could bring our full, transparent selves to work, but we can’t always, simply because there are complex dynamics at play.
I’ve seen boss/employee friendships several times in my career, and they rarely ended well. The dynamic is complex - from power structures, access to information, negotiations, career goals, even politics. I’m putting a personal note and my own caveat to this at the end with an asterisk.
Here’s what I suggest:
Establish boundaries. But do it gently. Your boss is looking to see you as a human and vice versus. And that can benefit everyone in the long run. When he brings you a photo, a story, an experience, acknowledge it and then find a nonchalant way to shift the topic. On the extreme side, if you’re invited to drinks or to attend a non-work function with him, the wording of your response should maintain your boundaries, but not offend.
Try “Ah, Joe, that seems like an event right up your alley. I’ve come to enjoy my evenings and weekends at home with my family / alone hiking / working on a side project, and I want to dedicate my out of work time to that.” You might even try redirecting his inquiry to spend time together at a professional, work-related event that involves other coworkers. And be the first or second to leave the scene.
Also, limit the sharing on your side, but again, stay human. You’re probably already doing this but remember not to be secretive or distant. Share a quick anecdote about the things that you love doing that don’t involve work, aren’t of interest to him, etc.
Finally, in regards to the touchy-feely. I totally get this - I like hugs but only if I’ve indicated its ok. It's okay to say, "Sorry, I'm not the hugging type." and then stick with that as a norm for yourself in the workplace.
When I'm around people who like to cross this boundary, I intentionally place myself where it’s difficult to touch. Desks between, distance, a computer, a high-five that blocks a hug, even hot coffee and a “careful! Hot!” work great. I find that a few of these stints and more times than not the person gets the hint (whether they know it consciously or not). And then it becomes awkward for them to change their style of interaction with you.
I did have a boss that become a friend while working together. She and I met as peers at one company, and I was so impressed by her experience and intelligence that I wanted to cross onto her team and learn from her. When she left for a new company, she recruited me to follow her, and join her team.
Prior to my joining, we had a candid conversation about how this would affect our friendship, how we would handle rough patches, and where the boundaries sat on social (we never posted together) and in the office (we never left together to get drinks, lunch, etc. unless work called for it). I’m happy to say I still consider her one of my closest friends. AND I still turn to her for professional advice.
Alternately, I have another very close friend who used to be my boss, but while we worked together, we had a strictly professional relationship, and I respected her immensely for it. After our careers took us in opposite directions, we’ve both intentionally invested in our friendship. I’m incredibly lucky these two women (among others) know me both professionally and personally.