At Work

Drawing the line

Drop “Mr Kam”, just Paul will do, I heard myself saying to the executive in my office recently. . It was, I must admit even for me, a big mistake.

It wasn’t long before, when we were seated together for a meal at a function, that I found this “rookie” picking food off my plate!

It was indeed an awkward moment but I believe I was to blame.

Too familiar? Resting an arm on your boss’s shoulder may be a friendly gesture that he may not be comfortable with.
Too familiar? Resting an arm on your boss’s shoulder may be a friendly gesture that he may not be comfortable with.

Let me explain how we became so casual amongst subordinates and superiors. My company started with a small group of friends who shared the same passion for developing people.

We started small hence we were all on first-name basis. However, 10 years later much has changed and a good part of my staff are younger and they were hired over the past five years. Hence, behind closed doors in the office, going on a first name basis from managing director to the receptionist would not raise an eyebrow.

However, I have begun to realise this does seem a mite out of place when my junior executive, in the company of other corporate managers and clients, starts to address me by my first name or pick food off my plate.

During many official functions, I have seen how some employees of clients could so quickly switch from addressing their bosses on first-name basis to proper salutations such as Mr, Datuk, Datin etc when in the company of outsiders.

On the flip side, I have also encountered situations where young executives fail to introduce their managing director or CEO at functions to me, and I would have not known who they were, had I not asked.

In the era of Mark Zuckerberg and Jerry Yang, it is trendy to adopt a casual management style where social lines between superiors and subordinates are very thin.

Aside from being on first-name basis, sometimes a lot of social behaviour that reflect respect are compromised.

Granted it is recommended that some management styles that inhibit creativity have to go, but the greater question is to what extent?

Many managers, old and new, will find themselves in these muddy waters if they are unable to transcend the “friendship” aspect to create a boundary that will serve as a reminder to the “boss and employee relationship”.

When this “employee friend” line is crossed, both the boss and the employee will have unrealistic expectations of each other. And there is also a tendency for speculations on favouritism by the boss.

I often hear remarks from my corporate friends when we are out for coffee: “Hey, I am still the boss they seem to forget!” And each time this happens I can’t help but wonder what gave rise to this scenario.

There was an instance when the CEO was carrying bags from his car to a company event and walking towards a bunch of his young executives and none of them lifted a finger to help him even though it was obvious that he was struggling!

Friends also do silly things and you can find these all over the social network especially on Facebook. It is one thing to socialise with your employers but do you really want to be seen on the net having had one drink too many?

Young managers who want to break away from conventional management styles will find themselves stumbling in their path up the corporate ladder if they get over board with this casual trend. In my earlier article, I mentioned how hiring employers check out the Facebook of applicants before they decide to call them for interviews.

Another side to this “boss-friend” management style is that it may also promote the behavior of being physical and attract unwanted touches.

This muddled boundary has gotten many companies and managers in trouble with law suits for sexual harassment.

For male managers, a hand on the waist of a female subordinate to guide her towards a certain direction, questions about personal relationships, air kissing and group hugs may seem harmless and a friendly casual relationship.

However, I have often heard enough, the comments by some female executives of such bosses. They are anything but complimentary.

Culture has an important role to determine our management style. What works in the West may not necessarily work for us.

If you are with your boss at a social function, you should keep a professional demeanour no matter how casual the moment. And you certainly do not slap your boss on the back to show you are one of the boys!

Although there are no hard and fast rules on how to buy into this casual trend of management without getting into trouble, whether as a manager or an employee, I believe some reminders here will do nicely to help draw your line.

• When in doubt, you must be cautious instead of being too casual. This means that you should always keep your distance and accord your boss respect. It’s much safer to treat him like a boss than to risk upsetting him by being overly friendly. For young managers, remember the way you treat your bosses will determine how your subordinates also treat you.

• Whether in an official function or meeting, never forget to introduce your boss. It shows respect and manners. It is very embarrassing for your boss to have to introduce himself while you are busy chatting away.

• If your boss was a friend before he became your manager/employer at work, then you need to get into the habit of addressing him formally at official functions.

For the young managers, an open management style is usually adopted to bring the bosses closer to the staff. However, remember that good leadership can also be achieved by getting to the ground and by getting your hands dirty and working with your suboridnates and colleagues — this is leadership by example.

Draw that line of respect before you get drawn into trouble.

Extracted from 'Workable Tips' by Paul Kam.

Paul Kam is a Kuala Lumpur-based managing director to a HR consulting and training organisation, with over 16 years in consulting, training and advisory experience throughout Asia. He also serves as a director to several companies in various sectors.

He has led a wide range of start-ups successfully and manages four organisations in multiple industries. He has worked extensively with both private and public sector leaders throughout Asia and has designed and led several transformation, alignment and strategic change initiatives. With his understanding of market conditions and challenges in the various industries, he is passionate in partnering with clients to shift and align mindsets and behaviours of leaders and employees by focusing on innovative programmes and solutions to inspire them.

Paul Kam is a qualified advocate and solicitor is also a member of the Malaysian Institute of Management. He is also a certified team profiler and life and wealth coach. He can be reached at