Buddying up in the office can be tricky. But when handled well, work friendships can be both personally and professionally rewarding. Workplace relationship experts weigh in on how to navigate these tricky relationships.
“Workships—relationships that are more than acquaintances but less than friendships—can be safer for the office,” says relationship coach and author of Productive Relationships Jan Yager, Ph.D. They maintain a distance that makes it easier and less dramatic if the relationship does end, but they still contribute to a pleasant and productive work environment.
Don’t underestimate the power of the after work drink or coffee break with coworkers. A survey conducted of 1,000 US workers aged 18 or older by the Gallup Organization found that having a good friend at work is more effective at keeping people motivated in the office than a good salary or benefits. Fifty-one percent of those with a friend were engaged in their work versus 10 percent without a good friend. Plus, it’s profitable for companies: 75 percent of those with a friend planned to be with the company for at least another year, compared to only 51 percent without.
Almost one-third (31 percent) of U.S. workers have witnessed co-workers engaging in unethical conduct, yet only half (52 percent) of those people report what they witness, according to a national poll of 2,099 U.S. workers by staffing firm Hudson. If you see a fellow employee violating office rules, report it to your superior.
Don’t let your friendship affect your positivity in the office
Friends are a good thing in a good workplace—and a bad thing in a bad workplace. When employees are in an office where the boss is dictatorial and feel like they receive little recognition, they will commiserate with their office friends and increase the “us-versus-them” tone in the office, reports Gallup managing consultant Dana Baugh. Instead of dwelling on the negative with friends, work with your superiors and coworkers to get to the root of the issue and fix it.
Accept that work friendships can be a double-edged sword
“It's important not to get too friendly too soon, or to reveal very intimate information before you know the other person,” says NYU psychiatry professor and author of TheFriendshipBlog.com, Irene S. Levine, Ph.D. Remember this is someone who can affect your livelihood if your friendship falls apart, or at the very least, make things uncomfortable in the office every day. However, friendships always involve taking risks, and finding someone you can trust can prove to be a great support system.
“In my research, I’ve found that friendships with those at the same level in the workplace are safer than between those who are at different levels—i.e. befriending your boss,” says Yager. That doesn’t mean that inter-level friendships can’t work, just be prepared to put in the extra effort to make sure the difference in status doesn’t become an issue.
If you do become friends with your boss, don’t overdo it
You not only risk negatively affecting your career if things turn sour but you also risk ruining your relationships with your peers because of jealousy. Maintain boundaries in the office by remaining professional, not taking advantage of the friendship, maintaining confidentiality and respecting your superior’s authority, says Levine.
Steer away from chatter about money, religion or politics
The standard rule of thumb is to avoid discussing these sensitive topics with coworkers, as your views could cause negativity and unease about working together. This is a good practice to follow with most of your co-workers, says Yager: “But if you are working with a friend—a true friend—nothing should be off limits.”
“Gossip is always risky business,” says Levine. Most of it is negative and can be personally damaging. If a colleague is gossiping to you, divert the conversation to another topic and don’t participate in or encourage the hearsay. If the person continues, let them know that it makes you uncomfortable. On the other hand, some gossip can be constructive, such as chit-chat about office politics to feel out what is acceptable in a workplace setting.
“If you become very friendly with someone who has a reputation for being disloyal, lazy or the office gossip, you may tarnish your reputation,” says Levine. Be sure to get to know everyone in your workplace before you form a strong alliance with any one person.
Realize that not everyone will want to befriend you
There are those who believe that business and personal life should not mix, so don’t take a rejection personally. “Some people can't handle the challenges of having a friendship at work,” says Yager. “They don’t want to worry about whether criticizing a friend will hurt the friendship, or that showing favoritism might lead to others being resentful.”
Keep a balance of friends in the workplace and outside
Your office friendships are great, but don’t let them be a substitute for friendships outside of work. Your outside friends won’t be affected by office politics, promotions or a change of companies. “People can behave differently when money, power, and careers are at stake,” writes Alexandra Levit in her book They Don’t Teach Corporate in College.