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From BFF to Your Boss [2020 Study]

“Friends will be friends. Right 'til the end.” Or will they? Do things change when your best friend becomes your boss? That's exactly what we set out to explore.

Maciej Duszynski, CPRW
Maciej Duszynski, CPRW
Certified Professional Resume Writer, Career Expert
From BFF to Your Boss [2020 Study]

from bff to your boss

Friendships are an integral part of the office or workplace. In fact, those with work friends are seven times more likely to be engaged with their job. There’s even evidence that workplace friendships contribute to long-term happiness outside of work. But what are these friendships put through when one person is promoted over the other?

We talked to over 1,000 employed people about their friends at work, as well as what happened when they or their friends received a promotion. In light of the many challenges they shared, we discovered some strategies for transitioning into the boss or seeing a friend do the same. Continue reading to see what these employees had to say. 

Promotion Relations

At some point, most employees will have to confront the fact that either they or their workplace friend will be promoted over the other. Only 29.9% of respondents said this had never happened to them. Meanwhile, nearly 44% said they or a friend became the other’s supervisor, while 26.4% said they or a friend were promoted to a higher position in a separate department. 

from bff to your boss

Exactly half of respondents said they were jealous of a friend’s promotion at work, or at least this many were able to admit to feeling envious. 

If you’re caught in the grips of jealousy, experts suggest channelling that anger into something positive, like making a list of personal goals instead of wasting energy playing the comparison game. Even if it’s tough, it’s also important to congratulate others – cheering people on can improve your relationship with them, which we know to be important to professional success. 

Changes in Closeness

Most employees handled the promotion situation professionally. Almost 69% said nothing changed in terms of their friendship; things were as good as they were before the promotion. Fourteen percent said the relationship even got stronger after one person was promoted. 

from bff to your boss

However, the promotion of just one friend became more likely the longer the friendship progressed. It happened to more than 50% of those who’d been friends for three or more years. 

Unfortunately, these longer-term friendships were the most likely to suffer after a promotion: Only 10.4% felt a promotion had improved or strengthened their relationship. Perhaps both people, having dedicated a minimum of three years to the company, fought hard for the same position.

But having a friend promoted over another wasn’t all bad. Thirty-four percent said this scenario ended up with the boss giving special treatment. The fact of the matter is: Bosses do play favourites and can give certain employees access to more important meetings, better projects, or even be more lenient with time off. While we’re not condoning this behaviour, we’re also not suggesting cutting the friendship ties with your new boss.

Undermining and Challenging Authority

Even those who experienced improved friendships after a promotion still faced some challenges. Most commonly, promoted employees had issues with establishing authority over their new subordinates. The need to establish control was even more of a problem than receiving constructive feedback (19.4%) and coaching (22.1%). 

from bff to your boss

According to Forbes, however, “Effective managers lead through influence. Micromanagers lead through control.” It may be time to reconsider your leadership style and priorities if authority is more of an issue than constructive feedback.

This advice might be easier said than taken, however, as 36.5% of new managers felt their friends had undermined them in some way after the promotion. This may stem from the 19% who said they had issues trusting their friends to complete work on time or accurately. When push came to shove, some managers took extreme action: More than 1 in 10 had fired a friend after becoming their boss. 

Professional Advice Generator

from bff to your boss

Less extreme, but more common, than termination was the 45% of respondents who said they had to change the way they spoke to their friends after becoming their boss. When we asked participants to elaborate, we received gentle, yet respectable advice. One participant explained, “Be authentic and transparent. No need to be pretentious.” Another mentioned remembering to be “a human being” in these types of conversations. 

In addition to the 37% of respondents who regretted gossiping with friends after the promotion, one respondent strongly warned against this behaviour, urging others to “be professional and not gossip.” The advice “kindness is key” also resonated with this considerate, yet authoritative, form of leadership.

from bff to your boss

Changing With the Challenges

Avoiding gossiping was actually the No. 1 way supervisors bypassed challenges with friends at work. More than 37% of new managers suggested that higher-ups refrain from this. Along with your opinions about others, your personal information should be kept confidential, according to 26.7% of respondents. Even company information was often thought best kept private from friends. 

from bff to your boss

Overall, consultative was the managerial style that was most effective during this transition from friend to boss. The consultative management style involves consulting employees in decision-making but letting the boss have the final say. This was considered 13.7 percentage points more likely to be effective than democratic management. And it was even more likely to be effective than the persuasive management method, wherein employees have the power to persuade their managers. 

So, whether you’re part of the 23% who’d become more lenient with friends or the 16% who’d become more strict, we recommend consulting others when gathering information and then trusting your gut to make the final call. 

Work Friends: Pros and Cons

The top challenge participants had with their friends who became their boss was respecting them as an authority figure (26.2%). Less than a third were able to say they were genuinely happy for their friend who got promoted, and 16.1% actively undermined their friend’s authority. In other words, the new boss stood on a somewhat shaky support system from the start. 

Employees who didn’t get the promotion also described themselves as more stressed (21.1%), less motivated (19.9%), and less balanced in their work and personal life (16.7%), which won’t make a boss’s leadership role easier either. 

from bff to your boss

There were, however, distinct benefits to having a friend get promoted that we won’t leave out. Twenty-seven percent felt more comfortable voicing their opinions, and another 25.7% felt more heard at work. Nearly 12% were even able to say they received more raises after their friend got promoted, and 16.5% gained a stronger sense of job security. 

Even with this additional security, however, 14% found a new job after their friend received a promotion, and 17% stopped hanging out with their friend. 

In the Shadows of a Promotion

While bosses had a hard time establishing authority, underlings found it difficult to cope with their friends’ successes. The data ultimately showed a wide variety of challenges for both bosses and friends after a promotion, but that doesn’t mean people won’t thrive in these situations. Some employees were able to voice their opinions better once their friends got promoted, and new managers helped share some great advice for delicately handling common challenges. 

Ultimately, the longer they stay at a company, the more likely a promotion, as respondents shared. So, it’s important to obtain a position and work for a company you genuinely like and where you can see yourself thriving for years to come. If this isn’t currently you, or you think it’s time to level up professionally, we’d like to help. ResumeLab can assist in making you the greatest candidate possible using the perfect CV for any position. Head over to ResumeLab to work with our team of experts and further your career goals today. 

Methodology and Limitations

We collected responses from 1,004 employed people via Amazon Mechanical Turk. To qualify for this survey, respondents must have indicated a workplace relationship change at one point in their career. Of the 1,004 respondents surveyed, 47.1% were female, 52.8% were male, and 0.1% identified as nonbinary. Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 87, with an average of 37 and a standard deviation of 11. A carefully decoyed attention-check question was used to philtre out respondents who failed to read questions in their entirety. In some cases, certain questions and labels were condensed or rephrased for clarity and/or brevity. The margin of error was 3%, with a 95% confidence interval. These data rely on self-reporting, which can be faced with myriad issues that may include, but aren’t limited to, exaggeration, selective memory, telescoping, attribution errors, and recency bias on the part of the respondents. An attempt was made to minimise bias throughout the survey design. 

Fair Use Statement

Maybe this study has you feeling more sympathy for the new boss, or perhaps you’re feeling encouraged to maintain your workplace friendships. Either way, we’d love for you to share those thoughts. You’re welcome to link to this article, but just be sure its purposes are noncommercial.

Maciej Duszynski, CPRW
Written byMaciej Duszynski, CPRW

Experienced in the education management industry, Maciej shares his knowledge for every step of your job hunt, from landing an internship to moving to an executive position. Maciej has helped job candidates at all stages of their career paths, from interns to directors to C-suite members, to thrive in their job. His mission is to help you find the right opportunity and create a job application that gets you the career you deserve.

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