Kate Russell discusses the challenge of attaining the right level of familiarity with employees.
There is endless talk in employment law about how employers (and therefore their managers) must be ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ to their employees. This is clearly a desirable state of affairs, and helps employees perform to their optimum. Building good relationships with your employees is an important part of achieving efficiency and in many cases today’s managers are often called upon to help employees out when they have issues that affect them emotionally. We are expected to listen, to source and pay for counselling and other therapies (at one time the government was talking about employers paying for employees who smoke to attend therapy sessions to help them give up), to make adjustments to enable them to work and deal with life’s crises, hold welfare meetings etc. The list goes on. And on.
While some managers genuinely are comfortable dealing with all this, to many the ‘fluffy bunny act’ doesn’t come naturally and in some circumstances is a tall order for busy managers who are very task orientated and just want to get the job done quickly and efficiently. Most managers will have had the experience of having to deal with an employee who is making a fuss about something fairly trivial or otherwise making demands which are disproportionate to the circumstances and had to choke down the urge to bark ‘oh just get on with it!'(managers are human too). Instead, we summon our reserves of patience, smile and say ‘right, let’s see what I can do to help you’.
Being too nice as an employer
All this extra-curricular caring comes at a price, usually in terms of time spent, but sometimes with a fee. But what effect does ‘being nice’ have on the employees who turn to us for help? Do they feel any debt of gratitude to us? It seems that research conducted by the IMD business school in Lausanne found that managers who take an interest in their employees’ emotional well-being often end up feeling disappointed when the aforementioned employee doesn’t perform well. Approximately 75 per cent of low and middle-level workers surveyed as part of the research acknowledged getting emotional support from those above them in the office hierarchy, but not a single employee said they felt any debt toward their managers for their kindness.
This finding came as no surprise to us. We would take the view that it can be very unwise to get overly-involved in employees’ emotional difficulties. If you want to help, find out about it, listen carefully and see if you can arrange some support. For example, employees may be emotionally disturbed because of debt problems so you could offer to arrange an appointment with a debt counselling service. Then let them get on with it. If you get involved it’ll waste your time, frustrate you if they don’t take your advice, and you’ll get the blame if things go wrong.
Equally, it can be naïve to expect anything back in the way of gratitude. In some ways the employment relationship is like a parenting relationship. You do your level best to ensure they can perform their roles well, safely and happily. But that’s your job. If they have problems you should take satisfaction from getting them back on track by providing some signposts. Like children employees will accept your help without questioning whether you are putting yourself out. Don’t expect any extra effort in return because they see it as part of your job. Incidentally, it’s usually the ones you put yourself out for the most who will be the least grateful.
Developing too friendly a relationship with an employee or group of employees could lead to problems with others, especially if employment relations turn sour. For example, it could lead to discrimination claims based on gender or race or perhaps age. The cry of ‘Oh you’ll discipline me, a woman, but you wouldn’t discipline your drinking mate, would you?’ (or vice versa) can be a useful shield to hide behind for someone who deserves to be disciplined.
An office where people are pleasant and friendly to one another is a far more enjoyable atmosphere to work in than otherwise. But there is a difference between being friendly to your employees and being their friend. One client of ours once said ‘I’m happy to buy them a drink if they do a good job once in a while, but I don’t want them coming round my house’. This may seem obvious, but it does make the point that managers are not there to be their employees’ friend. It also emphasises the need to be able to be firm with employees when they don’t do a good job. That’s what it means to be a manager, and it’s very difficult to do that if you’re trying to be their friend as well.
So be nice when you can, be helpful when you can, but let people get on and solve their own problems without you doing it for them. Be friendly, but avoid being a close friend – it’ll avoid problems in the future.