my employee is too buddy-buddy with me — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I manage a team of 10 in a hybrid (mostly virtual) environment; we’re part of a larger team that we interact with on a daily basis. I have very good, friendly relationships with everyone on the broader team, but I do try to keep it more professional with my direct reports (still friendly and pleasant, but not to the point of being work BFFs).

However, one of my newer reports wants to be very buddy-buddy with me and I’m struggling with how to address it. She sends frequent non-project-related communication over Slack (funny gifs, random musings about the world, just checking in to say hi, etc.). Even her work-related Slack communication seems extremely casual with me (“oh man, this project is fire, I’m about to destroy it”) and occasionally concerning (“I cannot stay focused in this meeting!”), but I’ve addressed those issues directly and corrected when the casual communication causes work problems (e.g., “Frank won’t know what you meant by that, please be more clear about the needs of this project”).

But the non-work-related stuff is challenging. I would never dream of communicating with my own boss on such a buddy level, but maybe it’s a generational thing. So far I’ve just been trying not to engage too much with it and, truthfully, it doesn’t impact our work, so there really is no “correction.” Should I just keep up a cordial distance and hope she gets the point, or be more explicit about the type of relationship we have? I should note that when we are actually in person or over the phone, she is pretty shy and quiet … it’s just over Slack that she communicates this way.

I wrote back and asked, “Is she young/new to the work world? And are the frequent Slack messages interrupting your focus/worth approaching from that angle?”

She is on the younger side but not totally new to the professional world (this is her second job in this field). I would say her behavior/personality aligns pretty closely with our younger hires, regardless of her age.

The messages are not really a disruption, fortunately. In fact, I chat with my peers in a similar way throughout the day. The issue that concerns me more is the manager-employee dynamic and how it seems to be pushing some sort of a boundary in that relationship. There is a good chance my personality just tends to invite this type of casual communication, though, because I do tend to get more intimate communications from others on my team (who do not report to me) … confiding in me with frustrations, sharing personal information, etc.

Often — not always, but often — you can reset this sort of boundary simply by modeling on your side what you consider appropriate. In this case, that would probably mean not responding to a lot of the non-work communications and keeping a warm but professional tone — things that it sounds like you’ve already been doing. Your hope would be that within a few months, she’d pick up on your cues and recalibrate.

But it also sounds like it would be useful to find opportunities to coach her on professional communication in general. For instance, if she’s going to need to communicate with clients or higher-ups, talk with her beforehand about how that requires a different tone than more casual interactions do and what that should (and shouldn’t) look like. Those are useful things to teach regardless, and it sounds like it would have multiple applications here.

Another thing you can try since she’s early in her career is pairing her with a mentor (and maybe suggesting that person include professional boundaries with higher-ups in their discussions).

Or, of course, you could have a more explicit conversation. But it doesn’t sound like it’s strictly necessary since the messages aren’t disrupting you, just more … off in tone. You could do it anyway, but this particular conversation has a high risk of embarrassing her or making her feel bad. Normally I think it’s a kindness to be willing to have awkward conversations with employees, even if it’s momentarily embarrassing, in the interest of people’s professional development … but in this case doing the three things above (or at least the first two) has a strong enough chance of working that I’d start there. You can always reassess down the road if you need to.

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