Best Friends At Work: Pros And Cons To Workplace Buddies

What do you think about having best friends at work? Management and human resource consultants commonly believe that employees who have friendships at work are more likely to stay in their jobs. I’ve seen this first hand when I’ve consulted with employees who were unhappy in their jobs but didn’t want to leave because of their friendships with co-workers.

We spend a lot of time at our jobs so it makes sense that we would build friendships. It is a lot nicer to work with people you like and get along with—though building friendships at work does have a downside. Emily called me about one such situation. Emily worked in an industry that was mostly male though she was not the only female on the worksite. For the most part Emily had never felt left out or demeaned by her co-workers, and she took a great deal of pride in being able to get along with almost everyone.

Emily had become particularly close to one group of male co-workers and liked to think of herself as just one of the guys. They went out for drinks, shared stories about past triumphs and failures, talked about family and occasionally shared some juicy gossip or ribald comments about co-workers.

One day, a co-worker from this group told her he was infatuated with her and thought of her as much more than a friend. Emily was stunned, embarrassed and felt demeaned, even though she knew that was not her co-workers intention. Both were married with families. Emily told me she never thought her actions would lead anyone at work to think she was available in any other way than as a friend and co-worker.

Emily told her infatuated co-worker to let it go. When he continued to pursue her, the story evolved to include a claim of sexual harassment, an investigation, broken friendships, and lost trust with other co-workers. Emily’s co-worker was eventually fired and she was sick about it. She felt stupid and blamed herself for not setting better boundaries. She was also angry at her co-worker for not taking her “no” for an answer. Emily was concerned it would never be the same at her work, a place she liked with people she thought of as friends. And she was right—it would never be the same.

Regardless of who was to blame in the situation, fellow employees took sides and those sides were not based on gender. Emily took a lot of heat from a couple of her female co-workers who made their positions very clear to her—they thought telling dirty jokes and having drinks with the guys was just asking for trouble.

Even though Emily’s employer assured her that her job was secure, she felt her reputation had taken an un-repairable hit and she came to me when she wanted help moving on with her career. Emily eventually left the company.

In many ways, this situation left Emily a changed person. She was still friendly, but was more aware of her boundaries and the importance of being respectful of herself and her co-workers at all times.

I’m not saying you should not have friends at work—some of the best friendships are those forged in the workplace. The reason to pay attention to Emily’s story is because whenever we place friendship or inclusion in a group above being a respectful conscientious co-worker, someone is going to get hurt. And in some cases someone will lose their job. As you build friendships at work, pay attention to the possible implications of your actions.

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2 Responses

  1. This is one of those “danged if you do, danged if you don’t” topics…

    Many companies encourage coworker bonding… both inside and outside of work. And, like it or not, there are always people who take that to mean something more than others do. It’s a slippery slope, and rarely does everything go smoothly. Holiday parties, gatherings after work at the bar, gatherings at someone’s lake home in the summer – all of that may seem, on the surface, to be not much more than a casual good time with coworkers… but there is always more to it than that – and it can backfire in a heartbeat. Pretty soon – after enough evenings at the bar together – you are aware of someone’s (entirely too) personal details, or have witnessed an embarassing situation… and these things alter the impression of the coworker – they change the level of respect and professionalism. And, as you pointed out, can even lead to someone losing their job… which not only effects the parties directly involved, but surrounding coworkers as well.

    Friends at work? No, thanks. Friendly, pleasant… enjoying the hours we spend together… absolutely. Hanging out at my house together on the weekend while I grill up some burgers, or hanging out at the bar pouring alcohol down our throats? No – no way. I prefer to keep my personal and professional lives seperate, whenever possible.

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