Can you and your boss be friends? Or can you be friends with those who work for you? In the opinion of a columnist writing in a recent Time magazine essay, a boss may be “friendly” but cannot be a “friend friend” to anyone reporting to him/her. Among the reasons cited were these: As an employee, you may need to be terminated, possibly for reasons beyond the control of your boss. Or you might be offered a better job and leave with short notice (you might even join a competitor!). Or being a friend to one’s employees may require a boss to waste valuable time inquiring about and listening to their weekend exploits, time which could be more profitably devoted to advancing the interests of the company.
I felt uncomfortable with the conclusions of the Time columnist, although I was certain that successful leaders like Jack Welch and Steve Jobs would endorse them.
I thought of my own experiences with bosses. As a newly-minted graduate engineer, I first worked at Hytron Radio and Electronics Company (soon thereafter to be acquired by CBS) in northeast Massachusetts. I reported to Arthur Gingrande, an MIT graduate who had served in the Army and there gained experience in the design and installation of radar systems across the United States. He also held several patents for electron devices.
Art helped me quickly understand the responsibilities of my job. Then, learning I was a “Jersey boy” who had never even visited New England, he helped me acclimate to certain of its customs that were unfamiliar to me. The engineering department’s annual outing at Plum Island beach was imminent. When Art learned I had never eaten a lobster, much less boiled or baked one, he invited me to come along as he set up the gear required for a successful event. We first stopped at Lunt and Kelly’s hardware store for two new galvanized steel trash cans in which everything would be cooked. Then to the beach to mount them each on a stone base, add seaweed and sea water as needed, and prepare the fires. Art and I then awaited the arrival of our engineering colleagues with the lobsters, clams, and corn, which were loaded in proper sequence into the “pots.” After feasting on clams and corn on the cob, it was lobster time. By then it was dusk, and I could scarcely see the lobster I had been handed. I had never faced the challenge of opening one, even in broad daylight. Art then directed me, step by step and crack by crack, on how to dissect and devour a delicious lobster in nearly total darkness, a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Art urged me to join the local section of the Institute of Radio Engineers, in which I became an active member, and which helped launch me toward my lengthy career with IEEE. He was also instrumental in helping me file my first patent applications.
When CBS chairman Paley decided to exit the manufacturing business to concentrate on broadcasting, our division was put up for sale. There was a scramble for new jobs as the receiving tube operation was sold to a company in India. But we all helped one another, Art accepting a position at Western Electric/Bell Labs and alerting me and other members of the engineering staff to opportunities at nearby locations.
A few years ago Art passed away, and I have since stayed in touch with his son, who was a mere tot when my wife and I were first invited to dinner at Art’s home.
While working as an engineer at CBS Electronics, I was also befriended by other “bosses” (department heads to whom I did not report directly).
I became good friends with the director of reliability and quality control. His wife and mine together participated in community activities, and our families often dined together.
Our division manager, Michael Callahan, noted some of my non-job interests. Bud, as he preferred to be called, asked whether I’d be interested in becoming a member of the local Kiwanis Club. I was, and he arranged the proper introductions and I became an active Kiwanian. Bud also enlisted my aid in a community project to raise funds for the local Boy Scouts.
Why was it that my experiences with bosses as friends differed significantly from those advocated in the Time article?
One likely factor is that we all lived and worked in the same community, one whose modest population remained relatively stable over the years. None of us had to rush to the suburbs at day’s end as many do in a city like Boston or New York. Therefore, many of us became members of the same community organizations where we had roles as equals, or where the boss-subordinate relationship might even be reversed.
Secondly, we were all immersed in the engineering profession. The plant managers and many department heads had risen through the engineering ranks. Even division manager Bud Callahan had held the same job for which I had been hired.
Other professions and situations
I am hardly suggesting that bosses and subordinates must be friends, or that bosses must necessarily attempt to be friends with all those who report to them.
Certain differences can make it difficult or impossible. Geographical separation has already been mentioned. There’s also an age factor to consider. In my own case, the age differences for the relationships I cited were in most cases less than five years and never more than ten.
The boss/subordinate and even colleague-to-colleague interface may differ by profession. Consider journalism, a highly competitive profession. Colleagues may respect one another but be incapable of true friendship. (Think of Morley Safer and Mike Wallace!)
Timing is also an issue. If you as a department head were to hire someone with whom you had been personal friends for a significant period of time, it might well prompt questions by others in your department concerning your motive. Did you hire this person because of his/her job qualifications or because of your mutual friendship? To allay any residual suspicions, your choice had better turn out to be highly qualified.
And then there is the issue of gender. Many would advise against the establishment of true friendships between a boss and a subordinate of the opposite sex. I’ll leave that discussion for another time.
Rest assured that in my long career in engineering and publishing, several of my boss/employee relationships were strictly business. But in many of those my potential “friend friends” were neither engineers nor trained in the sciences. And in others, residential differences and commuting played a role.
Comments on your personal experiences (and opinions) are welcome.
- Van Ogtrop, K., “There’s a difference between a boss and a friend, and that’s as it should be,” Time, Vol. 187, no. 24, June 27, 2016.
- Christiansen, D., “Picking a Good Boss,” The Best of Backscatter, Vol. 3, p. 7, IEEE-
Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.