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Valentine’s Day and February and red hearts – all synonymous with love. Did you know that there was a real person, Saint Valentine? Actually, the Catholic Church recognizes 3 saints named Valentine. They were all martyred so perhaps Valentine’s Day is a bit more dangerous than just declaring your affection for someone. My favorite Saint Valentine story is of a Roman priest who disregarded the emperor’s rule about marriage. Emperor Claudius II had outlawed marriage (because men were better soldiers if they didn’t have wives and kids to think about) but Father Valentine continued to secretly marry couples; the emperor’s decree be damned. (I do love the irreverent ones, don’t you)? Sadly for Father Valentine, he got caught and the emperor ordered him killed – thus his saint status.
To learn more about the other two saints and the history of Valentine’s Day:
In ancient Roman times there was a bit more at stake than just love, in modern times, Valentine’s is a special day to celebrate people you care about. OR perhaps is it the winning lottery ticket for Hallmark. Why do we still celebrate it? Ask yourself this:
If love is also friendship and friendship is also love, then is it as simple as: you love your friends?
What if you consider your employees your friends? Hmm now it’s starting to get awkward.
20 years in Human Resources has given me the opportunity to see people managers who, with the best intentions, want to get to know their employees on a personal level. But the results often went badly. Some real examples (details altered for anonymity sake):
- You assign a high visibility project to another team members because “Sally doesn’t have the capacity for that right now”.
- You promote Sally out of favoritism because – “I owe it to Sally, she’s really been there for me”.
- You send a memo out to the team letting everyone know that Bob is just fine after that incident in the bathroom. It was just a medication complication for his epilepsy but he’s fine now, so stop by and let him know you are thinking about him.
- You share personal information. You don’t mean to but it becomes too tempting not to share. “Did you know that Bob’s son was just admitted to a drug rehab facility? Terrible. I’m so glad my kids aren’t doing drugs.”
- You don’t put Bob on a performance improvement plan because Bob is going through a hard time and the team can pick up the slack. Never mind that Bob’s hard time has gone on for years and the other overworked and frustrated team members keep quitting.
- You’ve learned that Sally’s dad just passed away and you want the team to send flowers and cards. You look up her home address in a company system and share it with team members. Sally’s private home address has now been made public – possibly with dire consequences.
- You send friend requests to your employees on social sites like Facebook or Instagram. But then you find out that your employee, who called in sick this morning, was actually doing shots at 2 am with someone other than her boyfriend. How can you not make decisions about this person… with the information you have – about their personal life and choices they are making on non-company time?
The law tells us that employees and future employees have a right to privacy in the workplace. The laws differ by state, but the fundamental right to privacy exists in all states. To read more on the topic check out this link from FindLaw:
So what is a well-intentioned manager to do if they want to connect with their employees, but they also want to respect professional boundaries? Here are some suggestions:
When an employee shares something personal with you unsolicited, it’s okay to write a personal note or simply ask them, “I know you are worried about your mom’s health, how is she doing?”
It’s ok to refer to the important people in your employees’ lives if they talk about them first.
When your employee is going through a difficult situation and they tell you about it, let them know you are available if they need you. Show genuine empathy. Ask them “how are you doing today” and let them answer with the level of detail they are comfortable sharing.
No matter how tempting, NEVER share personal details about an employee with someone else. If it is not your story to tell, do not share it. There is rarely a business reason and gossip is destructive.
Evaluate your employees based on how they perform their job. Do not make assumptions about what they can handle. If you are concerned, simply ask them: We have a high visibility project with a goal of x and a time commitment of y. Is this something you would be interested in taking responsibility for?
Share feedback from customers and colleagues when you receive it. Regardless if that feedback is positive or negative, deliver it in an objective and fair way without judgment or personal agenda.
Think carefully about how much personal information you share. Your employees don’t need to know about the change to your financial situation or that your spouse is never home. Sharing information that causes strong value judgments is not advisable. Paradoxically, if you share nothing it will impact your ability to connect with your employees. Talk about a vacation you are planning, music you enjoy, a child’s school achievement etc. Let them know you as a person but remember you are their boss, they are not your confidante.
Personal boundaries in leadership are important. You and your employees are not friends. You are not friends because there is an unbalanced power structure. Never forget that the decisions you make impact your employees’ finances, home life and job satisfaction. If you know too much personal information it will impact the way you manage them. Be fair and consistent in your decision-making and do not ask them detailed questions about their personal lives. They will volunteer the information they want you to know.
Bottom line: Create professional boundaries that allow your employees to trust and respect your judgment, and see you as empathetic and interested in their success as their boss, not their friend.