Keeping Work Friends Happy

It starts easily enough. You and your workmate have a lot in common, enjoy the same things, share a joke, complain a bit together and generally get through the day. You may admire the colleague’s work ethic and want to get to know him or her better.

A friendship blossoms and work becomes much more enjoyable. Sometimes the friendship extends outside work hours. You might have coffee or lunch together.

With Canadians working an average of 50 hours a week, workplace friendships are a natural outcome. They can benefit both the employee and the employer, since research indicates that staff who have a friend at work experience greater commitment and involvement on the job.

But what if a workplace friendship turns sour? People may start to dread going in and work becomes a source of stress. Workplace friendships can run aground for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s a misunderstanding about a job-related matter or a perceived snub (you didn’t meet for lunch at the usual time). Perhaps a new friend is included in the mix and jealousies form. Whatever the reason, the experience of a loss of workplace friendship can be difficult.

It’s best not to let a workplace friendship get out of control. There are four ways to prevent workplace friendships from going awry:

1. Watch Expectations
As closeness increases in a friendship, it can be easy to take a workmate for granted. We can begin to expect more from our friend than we do other staff. We might assume they will stay longer to complete a task to help us out or take a bit of our load when we are swamped. Soon what was a favour, becomes an expectation and the friendship bogs down. Another way friendships become a burden is when we believe our friend completely understands us. This can become a problem when communication about work tasks becomes insufficient due to the idea that “my friend knows what I need, how I like things done or how I feel”. Assumptions like these can decrease productivity and generate misunderstandings. Even good friends can’t read each other’s minds.

2. Keep An Eye On Boundaries
It is important to a workplace friendship that both parties respect each other’s boundaries. Incessant popping by someone’s desk for chats or unloading one’s personal problems on a friend can weigh the relationship down. Taking up too much time is a common boundary problem faced by friends at work. Again, this can decrease performance and make getting things done efficiently impossible. Practising courtesy and not talking too long when your friend is busy or concentrating can protect the relationship from harm.

3. Beware Coalitions
Good work friends can sometimes become insular and refrain from including others in their circle. If this is happening and new recruits to the company are being shut out, you may want to take a hard look at the friendship. Creating an in-group and an out-group will eventually take its toll on the friendship, as well as team productivity. Sometimes friends can engage in us-versus-them thinking where other staff, or the bosses, or the company become “them” and the friendship group sets itself up in opposition to these “forces”. When the friends see themselves as the victims or the underdogs in some way, this dynamic is harmful.

Insular friendships at work tend to implode as the stress of being the sole support for each other weighs the friendship down. Be sure to include others and remain open to new additions to your group.

4. Refrain From Ethical Violations
It may be tempting to ask a friend for a favour at work that bends the rules. Asking to borrow a piece of equipment for which your friend is ultimately responsible, asking someone to cover for you time and again, or asking your friend to keep a secret that could violate company ethics are examples. These kinds of requests put your friend in often awkward positions. Saying “no” to you may appear to be a test of the friendship when the query should never have been made in the first place. You can tell if a friendship is going wrong when a friend’s request makes you uncomfortable. When people ask friends to do something that compromises them, the friend may become resentful and want distance. Compromising someone ethically can compromise a friendship in the long run.

Sometimes preventing a friendship from going side ways is impossible or it’s too late. If you find a workplace friendship has gone wrong, try these solutions:

Talk About It
Try to identify what went wrong. It may be a misunderstanding or an oversight. Or it could be that you and your friend have slowly created overly high expectations for each other, are engaging in mind-reading or are spending too much time together. Perhaps, you are becoming too exclusive or are asking your friend to do things that make them uncomfortable. Talk to your friend about what you are observing and clear the air. Make a decision based on your conversation to steer the friendship in a healthier direction.

Own Mistakes And Apologize
If you’ve made an error, crossed a boundary or hurt your friend, even unintentionally, apologize and make amends. Recognize a mistake and take responsibility. Your friend will appreciate it. If this doesn’t salvage the friendship, move on. It is important to respect your friend’s boundaries. If she doesn’t want to stay friends even after you’ve apologized, accept the outcome graciously. Hanging on can make things difficult for both of you.

Readjust Quickly
Once you and your friend have decided what might have gone wrong in the workplace friendship, take steps to fix the situation. It may mean communicating better about work matters, asking more questions or refraining from spending too much time together. It could mean including others in your activities or watching out for requests that make your friend uncomfortable. Maybe it’s taking “no” for an answer, decreasing pressure to live up to your expectations or helping the friend at work more.

Workplace friendships are valuable, supportive and enjoyable. They promote staff well-being and greater commitment to the company. Most of the time, on-the-job friendships are fulfilling and helpful to all involved. However, guarding against preventable threats to the friendship is the best way to ensure your relationship stays intact.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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