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Ask HR: Can Managers Be Friends with Subordinates?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here. 

One of my friends recently transferred into the group I manage. We previously worked together but never in a supervisory/subordinate relationship. How can I best manage a working relationship with her? Akeem

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: It's good you recognize the need to take a different course in managing a former peer. However, the same management fundamentals still apply. This does not have to be negative—with the right approach, it can actually be a great opportunity.

While supervising someone you consider a peer and friend is new ground for you, you shouldn't run from it. Instead, acknowledge your relationship and embrace it as a potential advantage. It takes time to establish a connection with a new employee. In this case, you already have insight into the person from both a work and personal perspective and can highlight what she brings to the group. Similarly, you can also help her become familiar with other team members and vice versa.

Utilize the rapport you already share to discuss your new roles and set expectations for working together. Be candid and realistic about your responsibilities as a manager.

Others on your team may wonder if you favor her in some way. Address it upfront. Let them know you intend to continue equitable treatment of everyone in the group. Manage people where they are. This means understanding their individual needs and recognizing their unique contributions. Your stated goal should be the equitable treatment of your employees.

Be proactive in managing challenges. Be responsive to issues as they arise. Don't let problems fester and grow. Having an open-door policy helps foster open and candid communication. It gives your team an avenue to address any concerns as they surface.

If you still need help handling the dynamics of this scenario, reach out to your HR team. They should have professional development and support resources to help you devise a management strategy.

People who know you best generally appreciate your honesty and sincerity the most. Be willing to level with your former cohort. If the situation is awkward for you, it is likely uncomfortable for her as well. Talking about your concerns gives you a better chance to find a pathway for a healthy connection that works for you both.  

I've generally been a strong performer at my job, but over the past couple of years, staffing issues have left me with a growing workload. As a result, my performance has deteriorated. How can I talk to my manager about it without seeming disgruntled? How can I ask for help in this?Regina

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: You aren't alone here. Over the last few years, many organizations, people managers and workers have been asked to do more with less. Reaching out to your manager can show you care about your work and your company. How you reach out, though, will make a difference in how you are perceived.

It will help to evaluate your situation within the broader context of your workplace. Problems are rarely isolated. They are usually symptoms of a breakdown at a deeper level. Additionally, "your" problem is never just yours; it connects to other areas of the operation and other workers. Bringing in this broader perspective can give your manager better information about the workplace.

Be willing to offer solutions. Don't simply point to a problem. Managers contend with issues regularly. They are more apt to listen when potential solutions are proposed to counteract the problem. Leverage your knowledge, expertise and perspective to contribute positively.

On an individual level, if you are concerned about your personal performance, talk to your manager about performance expectations. Don't just ask your manager to initiate change. Show some flexibility and adaptability. Reach out to your manager or HR to identify developmental resources to help improve your productivity, including software, tools or strategies.

Keeping the discussion with your manager centered on performance and remaining open to solutions will ensure your feedback is appreciated. Any worker can point out an obstacle. A valued contributor is willing to help devise a way around it. Good luck.


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