Organizational Development

Evolving Employee Relationships

In 1988 Krackhardt and Stern examined how intraorganizational friendship networks positively influenced an organization’s response to crisis: Krackhardt and Stern Article Link  An interesting side note: the article download is $14 – more than most current ebooks! The topic continues to be of such interest, their study still offers relevant value more than 25 years later.

One morning I was providing customized training for a company when several fire engines raced by, sirens blaring. More fire trucks passed. I looked out the window to see black clouds billowing into an otherwise clear sky. The location of the smoke alarmed me: could it be another of my client’s buildings were on fire? I wrapped up my training and hurriedly drove to the other company location. My heart raced as I realized, in deed, the fire engines were rushing to protect my client’s business.

I parked a block away and ran toward the situation to make sure the four owners and everyone else was okay. Employees were assisting with the attachment of hoses to hydrants. Others were helping lug heavy fire hoses to various property boundaries. Two of the owners stood at the company property gate, waving employees through the black smoke to exit. The company buildings were surrounded by fire on three sides, the dry surrounding fields carrying fire right up against the property cyclone fences.

Many employees who had exited parked a safe distance away and remained on site in case additional help was needed. This company is family-owned and they hire employee family members if the candidates are equally qualified. Many employees see each other outside of work for recreational activities.

As a trainer I frequently caution employees about spending time with each other outside of work. Should one of them become a supervisor or manager over their “friends”, the situation can be problematic. I know of a grievance filed at one company because several of them were at a local watering hole after hours and someone made a derogatory remark about an employee that got back to the employee – they weren’t at work, but the grievance went forward. Additionally, if an employee’s primary relationships are with coworkers, and something derails at work, the impact on the person’s life is heightened because they not only lost their job, they often times also lose their closest friends (like a divorce, people often have to “chose sides” even if they don’t really want to). I’ve also seen work place conflict heightened due to several people being invited to activities outside work while others were left out. Personal friendships with coworkers can be risky. However, when people feel committed to each other personally, not just professionally, they tend to stay at jobs longer and pull together more effectively during crisis.

I am frequently asked for my recommendation on this topic. I can only report what I’ve read and witnessed. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all recommendation because I’ve come to believe this: what’s healthiest for any employee group depends on the people involved and the culture of the company.

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