Your Employees are not Your Friends
About five years into owning my business, I was eviscerated by a 360-degree evaluation my employees gave me. They accused me of favoritism—of liking some employees more than others, of giving those employees more leeway in their work, and of ignoring the people I wasn't close to at work.
They were right.
And I was horrified. And humiliated. And shocked that I'd allowed myself to drift so far from the ethics I've always held to—that you need a solid, level playing field for all your employees and that not only is it the right thing to do legally, it is also the right thing to do ethically to not show favoritism at work.
After crying for about three days straight, I realized I had to change a lot of things about how I worked, in order to fix the culture I was currently damaging with my obvious preference for certain departments (HR and marketing) and people (loud-mouthed extroverts like myself.) I did not want to run a company that way, and I did not want my employees to be unhappy because they felt they weren't part of the "in crowd" that I'd inadvertently created. (Because—and I want this to be clear—I did not create that crowd on purpose. It happened because I simply wasn't being vigilant about my management. I find most favoritism develops this way - unintentionally.)
I came back into work the Monday after my rude awakening with a plan, and started taking action. What I did might help you figure out if you are showing favoritism, however subtly, in your work and if you are, how to fix it.
First, Create Distance
The very first thing I did was move my desk. I had been sitting with my marketing and HR departments, some of my favorite people in the world, and with my executive assistant, who was like a younger, funner version of myself. That had to change. I picked up my desk and moved to an island in the middle of our open office next to my business partner (who is neither fun nor young), taking only my EA with me. Physical distance allowed me to extricate myself from the day-long inside jokes and general silliness of those departments. They could still be silly, but I was no longer a part of it.
Then I removed myself from their Slack channels. It was definitely more laborious to email them with everything I needed, and harder to communicate about projects, but it was also less casual, and I was able to further extricate myself from the in-jokes. Being slightly less available also made them more independent, which is never a bad thing.
Finally, I stopped attending any after-hours events. If it was an official company-sanctioned event, I'd show up for the first 15 minutes or so and then ghost, so the employees could cut loose without me being there. And if it was an unofficial happy hour or hockey game or whatever, I simply didn't attend. Talking the next morning about what a banger a happy hour turned into or making references to the amazing plays at the game only served to alienate those who hadn't been invited or hadn't been able to attend.
Second, Don't Make Friends
My biggest mistake, as a young business owner, had been trying to be friends with my employees. I had gone through a breakup and was feeling a bit rootless and unfortunately, turned to the people I spent most of the day with to fill that void. As the owner of a startup, my social time was extremely limited and it was difficult for me to make connections. Like most people, I spent more time around the people at my company than anyone else. Unfortunately, what works well for most people—making friends with co-workers—does not apply to the boss.
By becoming more than arm's-length colleagues with my direct reports, I was making things a lot more awkward than they needed to be. It was harder to reprimand, harder to discipline, and harder to ask people to do the work they needed to do when they thought we were friends. I upset the power differential and created confusion about our roles inside the office by hanging out with them outside the office.
After this realization, and cutting out any after-hours non-work contact, I was able to re-establish the proper relationship with my team. And when new people were hired in, I was sure to keep things warm, but professional. No one that I've hired since then would consider me a "friend" and that's okay. I have friends outside of work, and new employees can make friends with their co-workers instead of me.
Third, Get to Know Everyone
Once I stopped palling around with a few select people, I decided to make a better effort to get to know the employees who I'd clearly been giving the short shrift. Not so I could become besties with them, but so that I could at least try to connect with them on a human level. Part of the criticism in my 360 eval was that they felt ignored, sidelined, or less important. It was critical to me to begin to repair those relationships.
I started doing monthly lunches where I'd go out with a group of three or four employees from different departments. I made an effort to stop by people's desks during the week to ask how they were doing. I paid closer attention to what was going on in their lives and with their families. It wasn't a lot (smothering them with attention would have made things even worse, and felt false) but it was consistent effort.
There were awkward lunches, sure. There were times when the small talk fell flat. There were some people who were so hurt from before that they didn't want to give me the time of day. But the only thing I could do in the face of those situations was persist. I had to try again, and to understand that this was a situation of my own making. If it was difficult, or awkward, that was simply the price I had to pay for my own poor management decisions.
Fourth, Apply the Rules Equally
The single fastest way to make everyone feel equal, I think, it to apply the rules equally to everyone. No special treatment, no making excuses for people, no exceptions "just this once." If there is a rule, it is either applied to everyone, or it's gone.
I train all my managers in this approach, and we discuss it anytime we have a situation that requires discipline or a difficult conversation. We'll talk about what the rule says, why it exists and how we've applied it in the past. And if someone advocates for an exception, we discuss what that means. (An exception means that the rule now no longer exists, and everyone has to be comfortable with that. It also means that we have to go back and look at all our previous enforcement of the rule and see if there are corrections we need to make because of earlier rule enforcement.) My managers have been with me long enough to start this conversation themselves, and usually by the time they get to a meeting with me, we're just confirming what they already know—that we don't give exceptions.
In addition to rules, you have to be sure that expectations are applied equally. We create clear expectations documents for each role in our company and make sure that all people in that role understand what is expected of them, to the point of reviewing it at the time of hire or promotion and then having them sign off on it. Once those expectations are in place, though, it is equally important to hold people to them consistently. If you don't, it's like telling your kids they have to eat their vegetables before getting dessert, but then letting your favorite kid have cookies without eating his broccoli, while his siblings sit by and watch.
Bottom line, if a rule or expectation doesn't apply to one person, it can't apply to any person. Period.
Finally, Constantly Re-Evaluate
Committing to these actions once is a great start. But what makes a great manager is the ability to constantly re-evaluate your behavior to make sure you are staying true to your commitment of equal treatment. Favoritism creep is a real thing, and it is very easy to slide back into old behaviors or develop a too-friendly relationship with a charming employee. Only by stepping back regularly and looking at how you are spending your time, enforcing the rules, and setting expectations can you stay on track.
It is also a good idea to do regular 360-degree reviews with your direct reports and your manager, to make sure your perceptions of your behavior match up with everyone else's. We sometimes need that outside perspective to develop awareness of our blind spots. I know I sure did.
The longer you practice these behaviors, the easier they get. You'll become a pro at developing warm, caring, arms-length relationships with people. You'll get really good at knowing when you are being too lenient with one person or too harsh with another. You'll develop social jiu jitsu whereby you can politely deflect an invite to a happy hour or a party without seeming standoffish. Like anything, it just takes practice.
And yes, being the boss (or the owner) is often lonely. To fill that void, I'd suggest finding a group of your peers. You'll find the relationships more authentic, less fraught, and more useful. And you'll preserve your company culture by doing it.