The Workplace Politics of Pastries

Some of the staff at Patisserie on Newbury Street.
Some of the staff at Patisserie on Newbury Street. –The Boston Globe

Sometimes, the lines between friendship and mentorship get blurred in the workplace. We talked to two women in the bakery industry about whether you can be friends with your boss.

Here’s what they had to say:

Susan Partain Turner is the general manger of the Patisserie on Newbury, a French bakery. She also oversees The Newbury Guest House, and Roost Bistro in Boston. She’s the big cheese, the head honcho – just under the owner.

When asked if she’d be friends with her many employees, Turner said: “Well, that’s sort of an interesting word. I think I’m friendly and approachable, but I don’t really do anything with them socially.’’

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Turner described her employees as a wide cast of characters, each with unique talents and personalities: “Some are very serious and completely big foodies, and others just love the retail business and love being around people. I can respect all of them very, very much.’’

But respect, Turner said, is very different than friendship. She described friendship as “someone you can confide in, someone you think of when you want to grab dinner, and someone you call when something great happens.’’

Turner said part of the reason she doesn’t get dinner or drinks with employees is their age difference – she’s 52 and the majority of her employees are in their 20s. But she said the main reason she keeps her distance is her position.

“There’s a level of professionalism that is necessary to run an efficient business,’’ Turner said.

Now, that doesn’t mean she’s a robot. Turner said she understands that her employees have kids that get sick, school plays to attend, and car trouble that arises, and “there’s a lot of understanding’’ that goes with her job. But still, she said, “There has to be a little bit of distance to have some effect. Otherwise, it cannot work.’’

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And Turner would know.

She said that when she was younger, she once lived with and befriended one of her employees. When Turner realized that her friend was not adequately doing the job she was hired for, Turner said she had to fire her roommate.

“If you’re close friends with someone and they do something that hurts the business, it can be really tricky reprimanding them,’’ Turner said. “You might have to let them go, and then worry about how they feel.’’

Turner said even though she works in the hotel and restaurant industries, she thinks every boss and employee relationship needs distance. “I think if you’re the general manager of any business you need to keep an air of professionalism about you.’’

Tania Peterson is the manager and pastry chef at The Patisserie. She said she’s in a “unique’’ position because she experiences both sides of the boss/employee spectrum. While Turner and the owner work above her, Peterson said she has an entire team of subordinates she manages every day.

With her bosses, Peterson said she feels comfortable talking about her personal life, but they still maintain a “business relationship.’’ They don’t hang out outside of work, she said. She and Turner are both mothers, Peterson said.

“We can relate on that interpersonal level. But I still respect her authority. And she still on occasion needs to manage the situation.’’

With her subordinates, Peterson said she tries to find an appropriate balance between being interested and supportive of her staff, while also knowing how to occasionally “tighten the reigns.’’ But she’ll occasionally hang out with them outside of work, especially if an employee is leaving or moving on.

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“If you alienate your staff and they feel like you’re so separate from them that they feel like you aren’t a person, that ends up backfiring because they feel like they aren’t a part of a team,’’ Peterson said. This is especially important when working in a kitchen where every person is a moving cog in the larger service machine, she said. Oh, and they’re often holding knives.

To maintain trust, she follows up on asking how employees’ weekends were and how their kids are doing. But Peterson said she never “fishes’’ for extra personal details.

Unlike Turner, Peterson said the boss and employee relationship does hinge on the industry – at least in her experience.

“I’ve never worked in a corporate environment so I don’t know what the rules and regulations are where there’s a human resources department that defines what constitutes an appropriate and an inappropriate relationship,’’ Peterson said. She’s worked in restaurants for so long that she said she knows it’s easy for “lines to get blurred.’’

“If you don’t have a thick skin, there’s a level of candor and intimacy or directness that could be really off-putting for people from other backgrounds,’’ Peterson said. “Open kitchens won’t work.’’ She laughed.

Oh, and Peterson said she believes you can be friends with your boss – as long as there’s no ulterior motive for the friendship.

“Human beings are so disconnected from one another, any opportunity to connect in any way should be pursued, she said. “But if it’s for personal gain or to make others feel excluded, then no, that sucks.’’

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