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Bridging the Gap between Colleague, Employer, Employee, and Friend

Is it better to join the fun outside the confines of your cubicle or keep your coworkers at an arm’s length? Well, we've got the answers.

The only way Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda ever found their way out of the Nine to Five doldrums was by befriending each other and working together. Although the movie is fantastical at best (they tie up their boss), questions of fraternizing at work remain a reality. 

A Risky Investment
Deciding to cultivate workplace relationships is no small decision. If the person you portray in the office is very different from the one you really are, melding the personal and professional may be risky. But the reality is that many times we find ourselves in a job that places us next to some interesting, fun, and like-minded individuals. What a great way to meet friends! Not to mention having friends at work can make lunch time more interesting, water cooler talk less stilted, and the company culture that much more convivial.

But Jan Yager, author of Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives, cautions against revealing too much too soon with co-workers, superiors, or subordinates. Like all friendships, there are issues of trust, confidentiality, and potential pitfalls. The difference is that when workplace friendships turn sour, it can affect both your personal and professional life. Alicia Scribner remembers her close relationship at work: “at first it was fun and exciting. Then things weren’t working out so well and it got awkward. Other coworkers knew about it and my work life was suddenly part of my social life. I couldn’t escape.”

Office Speak
Offices can sometimes feel more like a rumor mill than a place where work is accomplished. Drawing boundaries about what is up for discussion can keep workplace friendships from going under. Jan Yager recommends keeping your lips tight on the following subjects:

1. Talking gossip about boss, coworkers, or customers. After a few cocktails at happy hour, this point becomes particularly pertinent.

2. Not discussing any subject about someone else that you would not want discussed about you (sexual liaisons, facelifts, holiday party faux pas).

3. Business deals and partnerships that are confidential or unethical to reveal.

It’s important to remember that gossip can be spread through means other than speech. Email is a good way for bad rumors to spread and be circulated widely. Misfiring a message can result in serious embarrassment and bad relations, so think (and reread) before hitting send.

Da Boss
In his book, Vital Friends, author Tom Rath found that coworkers rate interacting with the boss as being less enjoyable than cleaning the house. Ouch! Although movies such as Office Space portray bosses and superiors as micro-managing dorks, befriending a boss may actually make life easier. The boss does not have to be your best friend, but developing an interest in each others’ lives, according to Rath, may make you happier and more productive at work.

Good for Business?
Building a good relationship with an employee can mean more than just swapping family stories and sharing recipes; it can be good for business. A 2003 Gallup Poll suggested that “developing and maintaining strong relationships with employees is a key to creating a strong, productive workgroup.” Because social networking is an important aspect of overall happiness, it should be no surprise that having friends in the office can make employees more interested and invested in their work. Gallup reports that employees with best friends at work are more likely to be engaged at work and those with at least three close office friends are 96 percent more likely to be satisfied with their lives.

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