Are Your Work Friends Bringing You Down?

work-friendsMany studies over the past few years have shown that workplace friendships increase productivity, team morale and workers' overall job satisfaction; and since friends provide us with support, comic relief and a sense of belonging, it seems only natural that having friends at the office makes work more pleasant. Yet despite the many benefits, experts advise that workplace friendships should be handled with care, given that they combine workers' personal and professional lives.

"Workplace friendships can be a double-edged sword," says Irene Levine, a professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and author of "Whether they are good or bad depends on the individuals and their roles. While relationships with colleagues can enhance creativity and job satisfaction, they should be approached with some caution. Some friendships fall apart and can make it very difficult to face your ex-friend each time you pass in the hall."

Who you associate yourself with in the workplace will also affect how your superiors and co-workers perceive you, says Helen Cooke, owner of Cooke Consulting, a human resources and organizational development firm. "We're all judged by the company we keep for better or worse," Cooke says.

Yet despite any potential pitfalls, it is possible to reap the benefits of having friends at work without wreaking havoc on your career. Here's how to set boundaries for your workplace friendships:

1. Keep your guard up, at least in the beginning

Though you may form an instant bond with a co-worker, resist the urge to share too much personal information right off the bat. "Approach a new friendship on the job slowly, being cautious to not get too involved too soon," Levine says. "You want to give yourself sufficient time to build trust and really get to know your co-worker before you spill intimate details of your life. So, for example, you might want to start out sharing coffee breaks or lunches before you spend a long weekend prowling bars together. Or you may want to talk about sports and politics before you talk about your personal life."

Levine also cautions workers who are new to a job: "This is a time when you need to keep up your guard up a little bit, because you may be getting too cozy with the office buffoon," she says. "While you should be friendly, keep your relationships on a superficial level until you get to know the workplace and the cast of characters."

2. Keep the in-office socializing to a minimum

It's fine for the two of you to take lunch breaks together, sit together in a meeting, or go for mid-afternoon coffee once in a while, but don't spend an hour a day sitting on each other's desks and rehashing the weekend gossip.

"If friends get too involved in workplace dramas -- for example, an office crush, a mean boss, ganging up on a co-worker -- this can undermine productivity," says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of "Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Stuck in Complicated Friendships."

Indeed, says career and etiquette expert Sandra Lamb. "Office friendships are a balancing act. To properly maintain them, it's best to keep them fairly low-profile, and agree with your work friend to do most of your get-togethers outside the work environment," she says. "That prevents the accusation that you're involved in too much socializing at work--a reflection on your productivity. My advice is to keep [the friendship] primarily out of the office."

3. Be careful with reporting relationships

If you count your boss as one of your best friends, take note: "When there's a reporting relationship between two individuals, it's particularly important to build in agreed-upon boundaries so that others don't feel there's any unfairness or preferential treatment," says Helen Cooke, owner of Cooke Consulting, a human resources and organizational development firm.

Even if your boss was the best man at your wedding, try not to flaunt your close relationship in the office. When it comes time for recognition or a promotion of your own, you don't want your co-workers thinking it was all due to your friendship with the higher-ups.

Additionally, says Cooke, if you and a work friend started out as peers and one of you gets promoted, new boundaries must be set that reflect the reporting relationship. "For example," she says "You and I were peers on a team of five and known to be 'tight.' Now you've been promoted. While you can still be yourself with me and we can talk about our hobbies and weekends, you need to not complain to me about another member of the team -- even if that IS how you would have behaved in the past. While we're all entitled to having a trusted colleague with whom we can vent, if that trusted colleague is one of your direct reports that is unfair and dysfunctional."

The bottom line, Levine says, is to "never forget that you're primary focus has to be on your work, which means you may need to set boundaries with your co-workers about how much time you can spend schmoozing. Just as importantly," she says, "You need to respect the boundaries drawn by your co-workers, even if they aren't explicit. For example, if you see someone turning to their computer or looking at her watch while you are talking about your date last night, they may be signaling that they really want to get back to work and you've outworn your welcome."

Next: The Toxic Workplace: How to Deal With Politically Incorrect Co-Workers >>

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Oh, I hear you! Mine was basically the opposite; I'm an agnostic but I respected and appreciated my "friend's" dedicated and conservative views, only to have her abandon those "Christian" beliefs as it suited her. It angered me so much she was a cliche, just a front for her true self.

July 17 2010 at 7:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You left out a comma.

July 16 2010 at 9:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Last few lines are awsome
"if you see someone turning to their computer or looking at her watch while you are talking about your date last night, they may be signaling that they really want to get back to work and you've outworn your welcome."

July 14 2010 at 6:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Tony, that deserves a high-5!

@accutek380, it's better still if you just order a hit on her, the ex-husband would take the wrap!

July 14 2010 at 5:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

OMG, to all the people that made these comments re: penmanship this is not an "English Course." BTW, your acting like high school kids do. Now if you pay attention to what the writer is trying to express, you may find it useful someday.

For instance, I observed two co-workers become very good drinking buddies outside of work. This was not a friendship by no means, this was a one sided vengeful task that this person took upon herself to get close with this other women and to learn all the little details of her life. Her reason behind this task was to belittle this women to other peers, she was very successful that it cost this poor woman a new position within our company. Therefore, I guess I don't have to tell you who came out smelling like a rose and also received a higher paying job of six plus figures! Thanks for reading my bad penmanship but that was beside the point.... P.S. never was good in writing lol.

July 14 2010 at 3:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

here I go again. I can tell your a smart person forget what they taught you in school sounds like you figured it out already. I hope that some day you'll make me earn a job under you

I really got to get to bed I heard that the girl scout are gonna kick our butts tomorrow

July 14 2010 at 3:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

one last pearl of wisdom be as careful choseing a lawyer as choosing an ex wife (husband)

any school teaches out there, please spell check this for me78

July 14 2010 at 2:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
NC girl

One, be polite, be friendly and share enough neutral personal information to establish a rapport but never, ever get involved in someone else's soap opera- or involve them in yours. Cute stories of your toddlers are good. Stories about your teen's drug problem are not.

Two, always be nice to those far below you in the pecking order because someday they could be your boss. The data entry clerk at one job ended up as the IT manager and the most important indispensable person in the firm at your new job eight years later and this was in a major city, not some small town.

Three, receptionists and the boss's personal assistant often have power far greater than that evident in their job title. Receptionists often know a great deal of personal information by virtue of their duties tracking the whereabouts of people. This is true even in the age of voice mail. Being noce to these people can have huge dividends. I got a heads up on an upcoming merger from a receptionist who saw the increased booking of conference rooms for late afternoon meetings and documents being messengered back and forth from the target and the lawyers.

July 14 2010 at 2:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

oh shoot, mom did I gotta go to bed

July 14 2010 at 2:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

please somebody stop me.....

July 14 2010 at 2:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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