Building Relationships with Employees Builds Business

Feb. 25, 2011
Getting to know your employees on a personal level can improve the culture in your shop—and keep them on the payroll for the long run.

Many business owners operate with the mentality that employees are strictly workers—profit centers for the business. Friendship is something to leave at home, and the two should never be mixed.

Kevin Burt says he’s worked for many workplaces that operated just like that. But he observed a common negative theme: Those businesses tend to be unfriendly and impersonal cultures to work in. And the employees don’t have much desire to go above and beyond their call of duty to take on new tasks when the owner asks for help.

Burt eventually opened his own business, Walker Mill Auto Collision in Capitol Heights, Md. “Based on my past experiences, I wanted to develop a different type of culture in our workplace,” he says. “I wanted a friendly, family-type atmosphere.”

“Shop owners have to understand that their employees are with them at the shop almost more than they’re with their own families. If they don’t like being there, they are going to look for another place to work.”
— John Shoemaker, president, JSE Consulting

Why would he want to do that? Burt has found one of the best ways to maintain a healthy business environment—and keep employees motivated—is simply to show he cares about employees on a personal level. He strives to develop relationships with his employees that flow deeper than just professional “shop talk.”

Burt recognizes employee birthdays, celebrates anniversaries of employment dates and even attends sporting events that his employees’ children participate in.

“Those personal things go a long way in developing a healthier and happier environment for the employees,” Burt says, noting he feels this is critical to the well being of the business.

Shop owners who successfully create deeper relationships with their employees will experience a bump in the quality of work performed, notice more harmony in the shop, and have more motivated employees, says Richard Flint, CEO of Richard Flint Seminars. Flint is a psychologist who has spoken at NACE on the human behavior aspect of business.

You have to be careful, though. Shops are still professional environments, and there is a line you can cross by getting too buddy-buddy with your people. But if you do this right, your employees may just become friends and star workers, all in one.

The Importance of Professional Friendships

Employees are looking for a comfortable work environment and a boss who shows some care, Burt says. By providing that, you increase your odds of having a long-term employee. It’s also a mechanism that just might attract other quality people to work for you.

“The most important thing that humans want to know is that they matter,” Flint says. Employees want to work in places where they’re able to develop deeper relationships with their employer because it makes them feel important, and the shop environment is free of conflict and confusion.

“There’s been a trend over the last three years of quality employees who leave their company to go work at other shops,” Flint says. “They often go for less money, and they make the change just to get themselves in a better working environment.”

John Shoemaker, president of JSE Consulting, says developing relationships with employees is one way to avoid that turnover. Even if you don’t offer the highest pay, employees become personally invested in the business. And sometimes that’s more valuable than being monetarily rewarded.

“Shop owners have to understand that their employees are with them at the shop almost more than they’re with their own families,” Shoemaker says. “If they don’t like being there, they are going to look for another place to work.”

Once employees develop a personal bond with you, know that you have an interest in them, and that they’re not just there to make money for you, they will have more buy-in and become more productive, Shoemaker adds. You can even see the difference in the number of sick days they take: Lost work time is greater in impersonal shops because employees don’t feel personally invested in what they do.

Creating A Healthy Relationship

Effectively developing relationships with employees can be tough for shop owners who want to maintain a sense of professionalism. Don’t feel like you have to take your employees out for happy hour once a week to make this happen. There are some simple things you can do to show you care, while maintaining a balance between professionalism and friendliness.

• Plan events. This could be anything from a summer cookout at a park to a holiday dinner. Make sure all of your employees are invited, and try to meet in a neutral location.

• Walk through the shop. “You can create deeper relationships just by taking the time to talk with your employees,” Flint says. The shop owner or manager should take at least two walkabouts through the facility each day. Pause and talk to every employee, and listen to what they have to say.

• Recognize birthdays. Give employees a birthday card or small gift, or hold a company party.

• Make lunch. Shoemaker recommends bringing a grill to the shop occasionally to cook hot dogs or hamburgers for lunch. Spend time talking about things that aren’t work related.

• Engage in one-on-one interaction. Take one employee out to lunch each month. That gives you uninterrupted time to get to know that employee personally. Make sure you get around to every employee at some point.

• Recognize quality work through praise. Identify something that each employee did really well over the year and express your appreciation in a card.

• Implement an Employee of the Month program. That gives you a perfect opportunity to recognize work well done, show how much you appreciate the employee’s efforts, and express how much they matter to your organization. (See the “Way to Go” article from FenderBender’s October 2009 issue on how to implement employee recognition programs.)

• Show support of employees’ families. Burt occasionally attends high school graduations and sporting events that his employees’ children are involved with. “It’s really meaningful to employees when they see you take time out of your day to show support like that,” Burt says.

• Be observant. People like to talk, says Don Slankster, staffing and development coordinator for Collex Collision Experts, based in Clinton Township, Mich. If you hear people talking about a certain life situation—like getting engaged, getting married or having a baby—take mental note of that and follow up on that situation.

“It’s about being genuinely interested in the events and happenings in your employees’ lives,” Slankster says.

Keeping Things Professional

There’s a difference between personal relationships and knowing your employees on a personal level, Slankster says. It’s absolutely vital to know your employees on a personal level, but you have to be careful not to go too far.

“It’s good to know your employee, but not to socialize with your employee,” Flint says. “When you start socializing with people, they no longer see you as a boss; they see you as a friend.”

The problem with that is your employees might begin to expect you to treat them as a friend—not as someone who works for you—and may feel entitled to substandard behaviors in the workplace.

“You want to be friendly and personable with your employees, but you don’t want to become a participant in their lives,” Flint says.

So where do you draw the line? That’s a bit of a gray area, and for the most part it’s up to your own judgment and common sense. But here are a few tips to help ensure you’re not crossing over into dangerous territory:

• Include everybody. Avoid interactions with one single employee outside of the shop. This can start to create cliques, and other employees may start to feel less important, Flint says.

• Hold everyone to high standards. The role of the leader is to create an environment of accountability, Flint says. You’ve crossed the line once you stop holding employees accountable for certain expectations, and allow them to feel entitled to do whatever they want.

• Avoid getting involved in employees’ personal problems. Employees might start coming to you to talk about personal life challenges once they feel comfortable with you. Remember that it’s not your responsibility to be a counselor or psychologist, and the shop owner should not become the sounding board for problems outside of work.

• Be consistent. If you follow any relationship-building strategies, make sure you do it for every employee, Slankster says.

• Be careful not to show favoritism. Don’t give any employees special treatment: Don’t pay them more than they’re worth, and don’t make special exceptions regarding work performance or attendance unless there’s a legitimate business reason for doing so, and you’re ready to make that excuse for the next person who asks, says Maria Greco Danaher, shareholder of labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins.

Especially in smaller organizations, it’s obvious to other employees when people are given special attention, Greco Danaher says. They will eventually take issue with that, and business owners could end up with a discrimination lawsuit on their hands.

“You want to be friendly and personable with your employees, but you don’t want to become a participant in their lives.”
— Richard Flint, CEO of Richard Flint Seminars

It’s good to know your employees on a personal level, but generally speaking, you should try to keep your relationship-building tactics either in the shop or during company gatherings. That’s not to say you can’t socialize outside of the shop walls, but remember there is a slight risk in doing so.

If you spend time with an employee outside of work, you certainly risk witnessing something that might negatively affect your perception of that person.

“Typically, you can’t use offsite conduct as grounds for disciplinary action against that employee back in the workplace—unless the conduct is illegal or affects the business in some way,” Greco Danaher says. “Sometimes, it’s just better to not know certain things.”

Managing A Friend

Even if you try to remain professional, it’s only natural that you’ll start to see your employees as friends once you get to know them on a personal level. Managing a friend can sometimes be a bit awkward, so it’s important that everybody knows the rules up front.

“The shop operator needs to set the tone from the beginning that even if you have a friendly relationship, it’s still a professional workplace,” Slankster says.

Companies should have basic parameters regarding work expectations in writing, Greco Danaher says. This gives you a benchmark and standard that every employee knows they have to adhere to in their worklife, regardless of how well they know their supervisor.

Burt knows how important this is. He knew a few of his employees even before he opened his shop and became their employer.

“I already had a personal relationship with some of them, and had to learn how to manage those people,” Burt says, noting he created a full human resources handbook to ensure he and his employees are all on the same page. (See the “Cure for Confusion” article from FenderBender’s September 2010 issue on how to create a human resources plan.) “Everyone knows that even though we’re friends, we still have to run a business and work standards still apply.”

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