In an answer to the recent question Is it inappropriate to help an employee outside of work? It states that "you shouldn't breach the line between private and professional interaction"

Vaguely related this question Is it unprofessional to Car share? Mentions yet again breaching professional and private interactions.

My question is, why? I, personally, used to work at a place where literally everyone would hang out after work and on the weekends. We would discuss work, and just generally be friends. So why does this seem to be so "forbidden"?

up vote 24 down vote accepted

When personal and professional boundaries get crossed and things go well, it's awesome. Everyone hangs out after work, enjoys each others company, etc. But when things go wrong, they go very, very wrong.

  • It can be difficult for people to be clear about what suggestions are made with the "work" hat on and which suggestions are made with the "friend" hat on. it's perfectly reasonable for friends to help each other move or to decline if they're busy. If the boss asks for help moving this weekend, though, it can be tough for an employee to be sure that declining won't impact them at work.
  • It can be difficult to separate "work" events and "personal" events. If my friend group wants to go to a political rally, see a comedian that makes off-color jokes, etc., my employer has no reason to care. If that event involves the entire team and involves talking about work in addition to the event, it may be seen as a "work" event that people feel pressure to attend. And it can open the company up to various legal risks if someone feels pressured to attend events they're uncomfortable with.
  • It can lead to insular groups. When a small team does a lot of socialization outside of work and a new team member joins, it can be hard to incorporate them. Perhaps the old team bonded over sportball but the new team member hates sportball. Or the new team member has responsibilities outside work that prevent them from socializing which means that they don't participate in all the work-related conversations and miss out on certain opportunities. This sort of thing tends to happen a lot when small companies grow and the old guard form cliques that embrace some of the new hires much more fully than others (i.e. new hires that love sportball get invited to the weekly sportball watching party while everyone else ends up feeling ostracized).
  • It can lead to charges of favoritism. If the boss decides to promote Bob and the boss and Bob also happen to play golf every weekend, then whether or not Bob was the best candidate other employees are likely to suspect that Bob got the promotion because he's friends with the boss. Human nature being what it is, no matter how impartial the boss tried to be, it is hard to completely divorce the personal relationship from the professional-- the fact that they spend 4 hours a week on the golf course chatting about work and life will inevitably weigh positively on the boss's mind when he's trying to figure out who deserves the promotion.

Many people prefer to set up strict boundaries between the personal and the professional in order to prevent these sorts of situations from occurring. Of course, not everyone enforces such strict separation and it is entirely possible to act professionally and still socialize outside of work if you're careful.

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    +1 for "Sportball" (and the general usefulness of the answer). – Phueal Aug 10 at 8:28
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    If the off-work events involve bars or drinking, and one person is avoiding alcohol for whatever reason, that's another potential exclusion problem. You don't want to give a recovering alcoholic the impression that the way to career success is to hang around bars. – David Thornley Aug 10 at 15:57
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    Great answer, but I'd also add something to describe how much more complicated things can get if you add any romantic interactions. – David K Aug 10 at 16:32
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    In addition, even if the boss tries to stay strictly professional, friendships among employees on the same hierarchy level might still cause problems in the future if one of the friends ends up being promoted (and is facing the same favoritism problem the boss tried to avoid) or fired (friends might take his/her side and resent the employer and/or quit). – Llewellyn Aug 11 at 18:42

It gets to be a problem once you're in any sort of supervisory or authoritative position.

I'm a director of the company. I let one of my reports, Steve, borrow my truck to move. Now two months later, Tom needs to move, but I need my truck to do some landscaping work my wife got tired of me procrastinating on, so I can't.

I have now given the impression of favoring Steve over Tom. I didn't actually do that, but that's what Tom may think, and what others may see.

It stinks, but when every third empty suit is a lawyer trying to sue anyone with deep pockets, you can't just be a normal person, any more.

  • The last sentence is the answer imo – Paolo Aug 10 at 20:15

Work relationships already have the issue that money is always involved. Your manager gets to decide how much you get paid, who gets promotions, who gets the choice assignments, etc.

Personal relationships are more fluid (meaning less stable) and often higher voltage. Sex, politics, and drama are all on the table. America is multicultural, many of these cultures disagree about pretty fundamental issues.

Persons "A" and "B" have deeply held, but opposite, views on various hot button issues that would never come up at work, do they really leave it at the door? Their Manager "C" shares "A"'s views and "A" gets a promotion. Is "B" really supposed to think what has happened outside of work played no role?

"D" has a messy divorce... and everyone in the office knows exactly what happened and is friends with his wife. Many people think "D" had it coming.

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    +1 This is the answer, in my opinion. Personal relationships can be volatile. Disagreements from outside the workplace will adversely affect productivity when they inevitably arise. With that said, I don't think there is anything wrong with loaning your air mattress to an employee in need. Just don't sleep on it with her. – Lumberjack Aug 11 at 2:37

It depends on culture, mainly office culture of the place. I am not a manager, but I do manage a couple of rental properties and the problem with getting friendly with the tenants is that they want you to do them favors, and it becomes harder to reject when you know the person and their problems.

So the main issue at work is when you get to know your employees at the personal level, it becomes harder to assert your authority and it becomes unfair to other employees since you might be seen as taking favoritism.

Now it all depends on culture. If everyone is friendly and everyone is helping everyone outside of work, then no one is treated unfairly because person A would get the same help as person B if need be. In such a culture, if one sour apple is trying to gain favors, it is easier for everyone else to reject that and the upper management wouldn't lose his/her authority over his employees. However, on the vice versa, if only one employee is the boss's friend who he helps outside of work, then everyone may turn against the manager and this employee.

In the OP, you cited examples where people question if they should have done favors for employees. However, there are several examples on this site where employees see a manager who does one person favors. You can see the type of conflict it creates since the employee is confused why the manager treats them differently. These types of questions are generally closed because the employee is basing opinions on guesses rather than facts about the situation but regardless you can see the doubts it would cast.

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