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Updated Oct 20, 2023

Friends With Boundaries: Handling Friendships in the Workplace

Don't let the line between work buddies and lifelong confidants get too blurry. Here's how to maintain professional friendships at work.

Jordan Bishop
Jordan Bishop, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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Human interaction is a necessary element of business operations that often fosters lasting bonds and friendships. Having friends at work can boost company morale and productivity while lowering workplace stress and making your daily environment more pleasant. However, even the best friendships can go awry and experience bumpy patches; in the workplace, tense relationships can significantly impact operations.

We’ll explore the benefits of workplace friendships and examine tips for handling office relationships while keeping the business’s best interests at heart.   

The benefits of workplace friendships

Friends at work can improve the company culture and ultimately benefit the organization. According to a JobSage survey, 95 percent of employees say having friends at work boosts their overall happiness, 76 percent say work friendships enhance creativity, and 74 percent cite improved productivity. A whopping 92 percent say friendships make them more likely to stay with a company. 

Happier employees who have personal bonds with their team members are less likely to look for employment elsewhere, improving employee retention and reducing hiring costs incurred by frequent turnover. 

Additionally, friendly relationships foster a more stress-free work environment and healthier workers.

Did You Know?Did you know
Romantic workplace relationships can sometimes lead to serious conflicts that can impact a business. Establishing a workplace relationship policy can help prepare management for any potential issues.

How to balance friendship and professionalism in the workplace

While work friendships have many benefits, there’s a dark side to getting personal in the office. When relationships go sour, the business’s growth and development are at risk, and a tense atmosphere can affect everyone’s productivity. 

Consider the following tips to manage workplace friendships professionally and respectfully to protect the business and your own career goals

1. Watch how much you share in the workplace. 

As in life, most workplace friendships start with small talk. You’ll likely meet people with whom you click and feel comfortable sharing details of your life. However, oversharing with co-workers is a recipe for disaster that can impact the entire office and affect productivity and morale. 

While many people are kind and discreet, you may encounter someone willing to use the personal information you shared against you. The rumor mill is a very real office phenomenon, and you want to do everything in your power to avoid contributing your life as material.

Be extremely careful about what you share with co-workers – even those you consider friends. Remind yourself that you’re in a professional setting and refrain from sharing personal revelations, challenges, and sensitive past experiences. 

Additionally, never push co-workers to share information about themselves. Let relationships develop naturally and professionally. Time will tell if the friendship is the real deal.

Keeping sharing in check ensures a professional office environment that keeps everyone focused on what’s important.

2. Set boundaries with team members who work for you. 

While managing co-worker friendships requires thought and professionalism, friendships with people who work for you present unique challenges. For example, when someone in management develops a friendship with an employee, they may face accusations of bias or favoritism. The employee may be placed in an uncomfortable position where others resent them, and the relationship may become fodder for gossip. 

Additionally, both sides may misinterpret the other person’s intentions and actions, leading to miscommunication and other unwanted situations. The business will suffer due to distractions and time spent managing personnel issues. 

If you’re in management, it’s crucial to set clear employee expectations and boundaries. Establish the type of friendship it will be, such as friends who eat lunch together, drink after work, engage in team-building, or chat and hang out during short breaks. Keep it professional and consistent.

In the long term, a well-defined friendship with boundaries prevents bias risks and may even improve communication throughout the company. 

3. Be realistic about the workplace friendship dynamic.  

When initiating a friendship at work, understand that it won’t have the same dynamic as it would outside the office. Don’t expect your co-worker to be your most valuable confidant. Enjoy the camaraderie without placing pressure and expectations on the relationship. This helps keep the overall business atmosphere more team-oriented and even-keeled. 

It’s nice to have someone to spend coffee breaks or have lunch with, but the relationship doesn’t have to be more than that. Cherish that you have a buddy in what may be a stressful environment; embrace, but don’t search for more.

Understand that your colleagues’ jobs are their priority, not your friendship. This will also keep operations running more smoothly and not impeded by drama. 

TipTip
Workplace friendships can sometimes turn into office rivalries. As a manager, identify employee motivations and foster healthy competition to avoid negatively impacting the business.

4. Stay goal-oriented and prioritize company objectives.

When work becomes a social haven, you may lose sight of why you took the job in the first place. Your loyalty may start shifting toward your work friends instead of the company and your career path. This derails the company’s overall objectives and affects urgency.

Keep in mind that you’re all there to serve a purpose – and that your friendship might not last outside the workplace. Stay focused on your job goals and continue mapping your career path to increase your earning potential over time.

If you’re a manager, ask employees to share their career goals and encourage professional development to keep the focus on the organization and delivering more value to the company. 

5. Speak respectfully about management at all times. 

Although it can be tempting, trash-talking your boss with work friends could interfere with your career goals, put you in a negative light, or even cost you your job. Additionally, trash-talking the boss creates a poisonous atmosphere in the workplace that can shift focus from the company’s goals and derail productivity. 

While complaining about the boss isn’t unusual, it’s essential never to cross the line into disrespect. Know that negative feelings are often transient, and a momentary annoyance isn’t worth hurting your career and the business’s productivity. 

Watch what you say and who you speak with. Disloyal office “friends” may not hesitate to make you look bad so they can get the promotion over you.

6. Be wary of exploitive workplace friendships.  

While it’s natural to pursue bonds and have people in your corner at work, remember that a work environment can foster competition. Even if you’re not in a toxic workplace with cut-throat hiring procedures, you should still be wary of work friends who take advantage of your good nature. 

Look for signs that a co-worker “friend” is taking advantage of you, such as asking a series of small favors, dumping extra work on you, taking credit for your work, and shifting the blame on you when a mistake is made. 

Exploitive workplace friendships can hurt your career prospects and damage the company by fostering miscommunication and misunderstandings. Keeping your interactions professional and not allowing anyone to take advantage of you helps the company stay on track and helps keep your career heading in the right direction. 

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Having a best friend at work can help in challenging situations because it provides support that fosters confidence and composure.

Professional camaraderie in the workplace

Workplace friendships can create a happy, productive office, but they can also turn toxic, stir drama, and derail a business’s progress and goals. To keep relationships healthy and productive, it’s crucial for management and employees to actively manage friendships and prioritize professionalism. This ensures a company’s image and stability while fostering a cordial workplace atmosphere and keeping employees focused on their career goals.  

Adam Uzialko contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. 

Jordan Bishop
Jordan Bishop, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Jordan Bishop is a finance expert who founded the small business Yore Oyster to help people make better financial decisions. Prior to starting his own company, he spent years auditing financial statements, developing financial models and advising on marketing strategies designed to improve scalability. Bishop holds a bachelor of business administration degree (BBA) and has supplemented his formal education in entrepreneurship and finance with real-world experience. His expertise has been cited in The New York Times, Yahoo Finance and other outlets, and he has also contributed his insights to Forbes, Entrepreneur, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, Money and more. He published his first book, "Unperfect: Innovators, Trendsetters, and the Art of Problem Solving," in 2021.
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