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How to Deal

Forced to be friends with your supervisor? Here are three ways to act.

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 11, 2010; 5:31 PM

How do you deal when your supervisor wants to be your friend and you are not interested? I work on a small team where most of us are in our 20's. We work under a lot pressure and have become pretty close. We go out together after work at least once a week and sometimes spend time together on the weekends. I think of most of my coworkers as real friends, not just work friends. The problem is that our supervisor wants to be one of us. He has friended most of us on Facebook and when he hears us making plans, he assumes that he is invited. He is a nice guy and everything, but I speak for us all when I say that we do not have much in common. For one thing, he is much older than us and he is also somewhat socially awkward. He just sits there most of the time listening to what we say. It's a little creepy, but we end up inviting him out a lot of the time just because we don't want to hurt his feelings.

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Your unfortunate supervisor is badly in need of a course on management. It would appear that he never was told, nor does he have the perceptiveness to have figured out on his own, that it is best to socialize with your employees sparingly, if at all.

Genuine and entirely appropriate friendships between employees and their supervisors can and do develop over time. Because of the power imbalance inherent in reporting relationships, however, it takes longer to establish the requisite trust. Wise supervisors therefore understand that it is best not to impose their presence on employees taking breaks or after hours. If they are invited, they err on the side of assuming that it was a gesture of politeness, make a brief appearance, and leave.

Your supervisor's resolve to "friend" you and your coworkers on Facebook takes socially awkward to an entirely new level. What he has done is the equivalent of grabbing a permanent seat in the middle of your social gathering. You understandably feel as if you cannot speak freely. I caution, however, that what you say to a coworker off premises or after hours ¿ even a "real friend" ¿ is as good as announced over a loudspeaker in the middle of your office lobby. Whatever you do when you are not at work will inevitably have an impact on your office relationships, and it is all fair game for discrimination and harassment complaints and investigations.

The same goes for your supervisor's behavior. If he has given you or your coworkers reason to believe that he is motivated by inappropriate sexual interest, you should speak up. If you are not comfortable talking to him directly ¿ which I assume that you would not be under the circumstances ¿ then address your concerns to his supervisor or to human resources. But my guess is that the poor guy's intentions are basically innocent. He just wants to make friends with you.

If your supervisor were a colleague with a bit of interpersonal savvy, would you still be inclined to exclude him from your social gatherings based solely upon his birth date? I am struck by the importance that you seem to place on your supervisor's age. You and your coworkers should consider how much of your opinion of your supervisor is being colored by ageist assumptions. Keep in mind that, under federal law, people age forty and older are protected from discrimination in the workplace. Many states and the District of Columbia extend this protection to people eighteen and older. I am not suggesting that you are necessarily breaking the law by not wanting your older supervisor to tag along for cocktail hour. But I do think that you should open your mind to socializing with workers who are older than you.

You have three distinct choices for how to deal with your situation: direct, evasive, or passive. First, you could tell your supervisor directly that management is not welcome at your social events. Elect a representative or two from your team to explain to your supervisor as gently as possible that you seize upon these get-togethers as an opportunity to vent regarding office policies and the stresses of your work. Although you like him and you do not believe that he would betray your trust, his presence nevertheless makes it harder to establish an open and honest dialogue. You risk bruising your supervisor's ego, but he will probably respect your wishes and, because he is nice, he will not hold it against you.

Second, you could make plans in such a way that your supervisor is unlikely to find out. Confine your discussions to the written word (email, text, etc.), and he will not overhear what you are saying. If you choose to take this approach, remember to refrain from later posting tell-tale photos on Facebook.

Finally, you could do nothing and just accept the fact that your supervisor may be joining you for outings now and then. If he has so little to say to you, he might not be enjoying your company any more than you are enjoying his. Over time, he may very well lose interest in going out with you. Or you may find, as he starts to relax and open up a bit, that he is not so creepy after all.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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