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Workplace Friendships: Asset or Liability?

Workplace Friendships: Asset or Liability?

Few would dispute the power that a true friendship has to enrich our lives. But what role should friendship play in the workplace? Is it smarter to keep your personal and professional lives separate or to purposely seek out and cultivate friendships on the job?

The Pros and Cons

Dr. Jan Yager, author of Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives, has found that workplace friendships can have a profound effect on your career. A friend on the job can let you in on the inner workings of your company or field, provide feedback on your performance or act as a sounding board. Having a buddy at work can make a job more enjoyable, even enhancing your creativity and productivity. Many people get new jobs as a result of friendships, and companies often promote programs that reward employees for referring their friends for employment.

When workplace friendships go awry, however, the impact can be costly. Too much socializing impedes productivity; personal or professional information can be revealed to inappropriate people; and cliques may form, leading to favoritism, exclusivity and negativity.

Although clicking with someone on the job can spark a friendship, whether to invest in the relationship may become a deeper issue. It's a question of trust for Mary, a photo editor. "You make friends at work and eventually reveal what you really think about managers, coworkers and your job, and then you hope they won't divulge that information, intentionally or unintentionally, to anyone else," she says. "There are allegiances that have to be kept if you're friends at work. Don't let personal information you've discussed go beyond the circle of friendship."

Friends Forever?

Are the friendships you develop at work fundamentally different from other friendships? In some ways, yes, Yager says. A job provides financial security. If forced to choose between keeping your source of income and a friendship, most people would choose to keep their job. Because of the pros and cons of developing friendships at work, you have more at stake when deciding whether to enter into a workplace friendship. The right group of friends can be a great influence in your career. The wrong group can get you fired.

Befriending the Boss

Can, or should, bosses and subordinates be friends? "Same-level friendships are the easiest to maintain," Yager says. "Problems can arise if one friend has to supervise or evaluate the other." If you try to befriend the boss, your coworkers might question your motives. If your boss befriends you, he may be accused of having a favorite.

When Friendships Fizzle

"Workplace friendships are great, but they can burn out quickly, too," says Mary Ann, a bank vice president. "If you leave a department or change positions, the similar circumstances that originally brought you together are now gone, and so is the friendship."

What is the best indicator of whether a friendship can survive one person moving on? Shared values, according to Yager. Although a shared environment may jump-start a friendship, a deeper connection must be made to maintain it. You must genuinely like a person, whatever the circumstances, to become lasting friends. Unfortunately, because people often instinctively hold back from revealing too much about themselves to coworkers, this deeper connection can be difficult to make. On the plus side, if two people have become casual friends while on the job, they may be able to deepen their friendship once one person moves on and they no longer feel inhibited by the workplace environment.

Buddying Up

So how does one navigate the treacherous waters of workplace friendships? Yager provides this advice:

  • Be discreet about your friend's confidences, and think carefully about the type of information you choose to divulge.
  • If you think your friendship puts you or your friend in a compromising position on the job, talk about it. If necessary, withdraw yourself from situations that might be a conflict of interest. 
  • Find out if your company has a policy regarding workplace friendships, and follow the rules.

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