Colleagues and Friends: Where to Draw the Line

Posted on Jan 7, 2019 - By Bianca Benedi

Friendships naturally blossom from close proximity and regular interaction. The average full-time employee spends a full third of the day, five days a week, with colleagues. As a result, employees often become friendly with their co-workers and supervisors. Experiences such as sharing lunches, events, meetings and assignments can help employees bond. Research also indicates that work friendships can boost morale and productivity – to a point.

Finding the appropriate balance between friendliness and professionalism can be a challenge. Employees who become overly friendly with their co-workers may struggle if disagreements or personal experiences affect their relationships. For example, if an employee receives a promotion over others, feelings of jealousy or frustration can affect morale. Employees may compare themselves to their co-workers and take into account personal information unrelated to the workplace. Rather than improving morale, employee conversations may foster more feelings of resentment. Additionally, employees who are very close with their colleagues may find it difficult to concentrate on work, affecting productivity. Employees can distract themselves and others with excessive joking and conversation. Although it is important to maintain morale, it is possible for employees to have “too good a time.”

On the other hand, employees who feel comfortable asking for help and guidance from co-workers may see improved performance. By bonding as a team, employees work together more effectively. Accomplishments become more meaningful when achieved and celebrated as a team. The more co-workers can communicate comfortably with one another, the more collaborative the group as a whole can be. Workplace friendships improve employees’ faith in the company and gives them motivation to stay. These friendships ultimately benefit workplace morale, productivity, turnover rates and creative development.

Managers and employees alike must individually determine the appropriate balance to maximize productivity and morale. There is no one correct answer for how to make friends at work the right way. However, there are some general guidelines workers can follow to maintain appropriate workplace friendships.

Developing Friendships the Right Way

Employees report feeling more emotionally impacted by achievements and accomplishments if they’re celebrated as a group. Employees with close workplace relationships also report significantly greater workplace engagement compared with employees that have not fostered friendships. Companies can therefore improve overall morale and team productivity by encouraging group work. Group projects that require teamwork, collaboration and open communication encourage employees to open up and bond with one another. With a work-based project to discuss, employees can strike a balance between joking and learning about their goals and assignments. If employees typically work on individual assignments, management can develop a series of team projects to encourage collaboration and camaraderie.

Offices and management can also promote workplace friendships by encouraging employees to share meals together. Both providing adequate workspace for shared lunches and scheduling or encouraging work outings encourages employees to bond. Most importantly, group bonding opportunities should be equal-opportunity. That is, there should be no opportunity for favoritism or cliquish behavior, which is counterproductive and harms morale overall. Whether assigning a group project or arranging a group outing, management should take care not to display preferential treatment or bias.

Additionally, management should encourage interdepartmental communication and relationships. While friendships are valuable to a workplace, insular departments that do not interact with one another can become sources of gossip and workplace frustration. By encouraging employees to form bonds across departments, frustration between departments will diminish or disappear. Additionally, employees demonstrate greater company loyalty if they form relationships with co-workers across the company.

Onboarding or mentoring programs can be great opportunities to encourage interdepartmental friendships. By pairing up employees with mentors from different departments, employees can form relationships outside of their immediate circle of co-workers. Maintaining open boundaries between departments and avoiding cliques is critical to welcoming new employees. This ensures that as a company grows, tensions do not develop between older, more entrenched employees and new team members.

What to Avoid in Workplace Friendships

While workplace friendships can have a positive effect on employee productivity, they can also be counterproductive. This may occur if friendships become exclusionary or center on gossiping about other co-workers. Departments becoming close at the expense of other departments can be a source of tension in the workplace.

Managers should encourage friendships across departments rather than focus on exclusionary teams. While individual and small group friendships are not essentially harmful, they can lead to gossip and cliquish behavior that turns other employees off. Additionally, management should assign projects that require different groups of employees and encourage interdepartmental collaboration whenever possible. When employees feel comfortable stepping across departments and hierarchies, they come up with more creative solutions that increase productivity.

While employees should feel unrestricted enough by hierarchy to speak up, managers should keep in mind how the hierarchy affects employee psyche. That means management should self-monitor their relationships with employees to ensure they are not playing favorites. Even without actual favoritism, a manager who has a close friendship with a particular employee may give off the appearance of favoritism. That alone is enough to impact morale and trust. Employees who believe a supervisor is favoring a particular employee may become resentful and less loyal. Even if a manager has a pre-existing friendship with an employee outside of work, the manager must avoid showing favoritism in the workplace.

Additionally, employees must maintain appropriate boundaries among their workplace friends. While conversation and collaboration improve productivity, becoming too close to co-workers can backfire. For example, an employee who is Facebook friends with another employee may be ethically compromised by knowledge learned on Facebook. If that co-worker calls in sick and then posts photos on Facebook indicating otherwise, the employee may struggle deciding what to do. Should the co-worker be reported, or should the employee ignore the post and keep it from the supervisor?

Employees must set appropriate boundaries in workplace friendships. The relationship should focus on the workplace, and employees should self-regulate personal conversation. Certain topics – such as romantic relationships, sex, politics and religion – should be outright avoided in order to minimize risk. While employees can encourage and develop workplace friendships after hours, they should keep in mind what kind of friendships they cultivate.