Many of us spend almost half our waking hours at work. If we have demanding jobs, we can end up spending more time with our officemates than with our partners or our kids. So it makes a lot of sense that forming friendships at work can help us have a happier, healthier work experience.
Workplace friends can be a great source of support, brainstorming, or solace when things aren’t going well.
But there can be a downside to workplace friendships, too. Competition for promotion can sour a friendship; personal information shared privately with a workplace friend could end up impacting your career.
Katherine Crowley, a Harvard trained psychotherapist, and Kathi Elster, an executive coach, are the founders of K Squared Enterprises, which provides workplace dynamics training and strategy. Together they have written Mean Girls at Work, Working For You Isn’t Working For Me and the national bestseller, Working with You Is Killing Me. They recently shared tips for developing and maintaining friendships in the office with The FruitGuys Magazine.
What are the benefits of friendships at work?
Kathi Elster: It’s much nicer to go to work everyday when you like the people you work with. In some cases, you may find lasting personal relationship that can span your entire career.
Forming workplace friendships can result from finding people you genuinely like at work or forming workplace relationships to protect you from a negative environment.
Many workplace friendships form out of a desire to get a sense of reality from others. We like to know for sanity sake that others are experiencing the workplace the same way we are.
Katherine Crowley: Because we spend so much time at work, workplace friends can add creativity, fun, and humor to any job. A good friend at work may offer moral support when times are tough. He or she may also be a fun companion outside of the workplace.
Shared experiences—such as learning new skills or surviving a wacky boss—can become the foundation for a long-term friendship.
Should you hold yourself back from getting too close to work friends?
KC: It can be very tempting to make friends quickly at a new job because you want to be accepted and feel welcomed at work, but we advise proceeding with caution. You want to take your time finding out who your workmates really are—who is trustworthy and who is not—before confiding in them.
KE: Consider workplace friendships as temporary. It’s fine to be friendly, but be cautious about becoming friends. Do not divulge intimate details of your life; you never know where that information goes. Use your workplace relationships to foster your career—keep it professional not personal.
How can you tell a healthy friendship from a toxic friendship at work?
KC: I think the main ingredient in a healthy friendship is the ability to work out differences and to feel safe with the other person. Toxic friendships usually have an edge to them. You get the sense that the friend could turn mean. You may feel slightly nervous around the person, or you may sense that he/she feels threatened by you.
KE: Toxic relationships also leave you feeling bad. You may get a stomachache when you see that person walk toward you, or you may get a sharp pain in your neck when you see their name come up on your phone. Healthy friendships do not have those sickening side effects.
How do you extricate yourself gracefully from damaging friendships at work (or avoid getting into them in the first place)?
KE: If you find that you have gotten too friendly with the wrong person, then it’s best to gracefully let that person know you have less time available for friendships and carry on a professional cordial relationship.
KC: That means refraining from going to lunch, coffee, or after-work drinks with this person. It also means not indulging in gossip with him or her. Your jilted friend may get angry, and feel hurt as you pull away, but you can still treat him/her in a courteous manner until the difficult time passes.
Any tips for managing a friendship of workplace equals when one person’s status changes, say, through a promotion or being laid off?
KE: Give your friend time to adjust to the new role and remember that you are no longer on equal footing with this person. If they are now in a position to fire or discipline you, then you are going to have to respect that change of power. Many friendships do not last at this point.
KC: I suggest meeting outside of the workplace and having an open discussion about navigating this change in your relationship. If you are the person promoted, admit that you may have to pull rank as you take on the responsibilities of your new position. If you are the person who was not promoted, discuss how you can maintain the friendship after hours while respecting your friend’s new status.
Miriam Wolf is a Portland-based health coach and the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.