Q: Last week you discussed what to do if an employee asks for an “advance” on their paycheck. You noted it’s easier for large impersonal companies to have a blanket policy stating “no advances”, but for small employers it’s difficult to be indifferent to the needs of employees because there’s a closer personal relationship. As a business owner, I agree with your warning about the risk this presents. Could you also address the hazard of small business owners getting too involved in their employee’s personal lives? Like advising on personal issues, fostering a culture where “no topic is off limits”.
A: You bring up a very valid point. Many small business owners want to be helpful and supportive of their employees and want to create a culture of caring and authenticity. I see this a lot with younger idealistic entrepreneurs.
In fairness, there are advantages to developing closer relationships with employees. When you get to know your team beyond the superficial, employees feel more vested and engaged in the business. You can find out what motivates them, you can establish mutual trust.
The problem comes when personal and professional boundaries become blurred. The business owner might find themselves in a situation where the “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” adage will apply.
For example: If an employee is having problems with attendance and tardiness, it’s okay for the owner to find what may be causing it, and try to help. Perhaps a schedule adjustment will fix it the issue.
But maybe the problem is caused by something more complicated and personal, like a medical or mental health issue. In that case, if the employer gets too helpful, overly involved, offers advice, and acts more like family than employer, this “good deed” may backfire. How? In the event the owner later has to make a business decision -like terminate employment- the true motivation may be questioned (“He fired because I confided that I was depressed”) and may even result in being sued.
This is why I’m not supportive of a culture where “no topic is off limits”, where the owner plays a paternalistic role, or wears the mantle of benefactor. The employment relationship is best protected by keeping it about 80% professional 20% personal.
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