Friends at work, divine or disaster?

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friends at work

It’s been the rally cry of the corporate world for over a decade.

Don’t get too chummy with your colleagues, especially your boss.

HR policies lay out strict guidelines about friendships and romances not only between workmates, but among bosses and subordinates.

It’s all pretty well accepted these days and, while I understand the need to satisfy certain legal requirements, some interesting research over the last few years reveals a dark underbelly to the practice of limiting work-based friendships.

According to Vital Friends author Tom Rath:

  • People who have a “best friend” at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their work. They also have fewer accidents, more engaged customers, and are more likely to innovate and share new ideas.
  • Although most companies don’t encourage, and some outright forbid, close relationships between workers, Gallup research shows that close friendships at work boosts employee satisfaction by almost 50%.
  • People with at least three close friends at work were 46% more likely to be extremely satisfied with their job and 88% more likely to be satisfied with their life.
  • Spending time with your boss was rated as the least pleasurable time of the day. However, when employees do have close friendships with their boss, they are more than twice as likely to be satisfied with their jobs.
  • The watercooler effect: You are three times as likely to have a close-knit workgroup if physical environment makes it easy to socialize. Unfortunately, only one-third of the people we studied report working in such an environment.

All of this begs the question, “if friendships make work so much better, why limit them?” The answer, from my experience, has been twofold.

One, there is a fear that friction in a personal relationship could translate to trouble, loss of morale or inefficiency in the workplace.

Two, specifically with regard to relationships between workers and their immediate supervisors, there is a concern that the relationship could lean toward either favoritism or hostility, either of which becomes a challenge not just for HR, but for the legal people as well.

Because of this, at least in the U.S., policies have grown up to err on the side of caution (f anyone out there is in HR, please feel free to chime in an correct me or add any thoughts you might have). So, I am curious…

What do you guys think about friends on the job?

Do you have really good friends at work? Does this make you enjoy your job more? Does it ever get in the way? And, I’m most curious about close friendships with bosses. Anybody out there buddies with their bosses? Any bosses buddies (or more) with people they manage? How does it work?

As always, chime in and share your voice…

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21 responses

21 responses to “Friends at work, divine or disaster?”

  1. LOVE friends on the job. I used to work in litigation and it was a job that was challenging, interesting, and high-pressure, and I loved it. The only problem was that I detested everyone I worked with.

    When I moved to Securities work, I found that it was boring and tedious. However, working with people who are friendly, engaging, and awesome is more than enough compensation for dealing with the SEC.

    Not that there isn’t a little friction here and there, but that happens with anyone you see day in and day out. When I realized I was spending more man-hours with people at work than my husband, I started not to take my work-friends for granted.

  2. Dave Knight says:

    The Gallup research is explained in “first, break all the rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know why it is a good idea to have a best friend at work.

  3. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Hayden – I have to agree that at least getting along ready well with those around you can make the difference between a job that drains you and a job you enjoy. People and relationships play such a huge role.

  4. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Dave – Thanks for the cite to more information. All of Tom Rath’s books are also great resources, he actually works for The Gallup organization, too!

  5. I think there is a difference between “people you get along with very well” and “friends”.
    Working for several years on different, large projects with a high workload, I found out that it is always much more fun get get along with your collegues very well. Being on the project, I definitely considered some as very close friends.

    However, it turned out that when a project was finished and the team was spread over the world again, contact was getting much looser and quite often lost. Meeting these guys later on usually established the good relationship again, but it was still centered around work topics.

    To sum up: “friends at work” really help enjoy your work, but I still see a huge difference between “friends at work” and real friends. It’s rare to have a real friend you happen to work with, but this does not matter. “Friends at work” are sufficient to highly enjoy your work….

  6. Stephanie says:

    Personally, I value the “people” factor as the most important contributor to job satisfaction. By this I mean working in an environment with people who are not only effective but intelligent, open-minded, authentic, and fun. We spend a considerable amount of time in the work environment to be satiated by anything less than being surrounded by quality people. How can I not be friends with people of that caliber?

    Some of my closest friends are people who I have met through work. We’ve ridden the waves together, late nights, and weekends. We’ve also celebrated birthdays, weddings, and project successes. Having close friendships with my coworkers forces me to work through conflict with greater care. That’s not to say that I neglect my employer only that it’s easier to mediate conflict when greater trust exists between individuals.

    I have enjoyed close relationships with most if not all of my bosses. If anything were to happen to ruin a relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate WHICH LED TO A NEGATIVE IMPACT ON THE COMPANY then any company would be wise to take action. The individuals involved can either stay, work through it and continue to add value to their employer, or leave. A company should address undesired behaviors as they pertain to the company’s goals.

    I could argue that hostility and favoritism could be more prevalent in environments where people DO NOT get along. Setting clear roles and expectations in addition to treating people fairy prevents against those things.

    Finally, why should we avoid close work relationships? Should we avoid driving because there’s a chance we might crash? Should companies avoid growth because they are afraid of failure?

  7. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Klaus – great point about the difference between work friends and outside friends. In fact, Rath describes 8 distinct roles that friends play in his book.

    @ Stephanie – I totally agree, to me, it’s always about people and relationships. They make or break nearly everything we experience, be it work or personal.

    I think, at least in the U.S., the challenge is balancing the benefits of friendships with laws that, from my understanding, can often pretty strongly disfavor close friendships. So, companies are in a bit of a tough spot.

    No easy answer, I know this both as an employee and an entrepreneur who has founded a few companies and been the person who was charged with setting the tone and expectations about friendships.

  8. Shama Hyder says:

    I am in the middle of reading this book-so glad to see this post.

    I think friends on the job is vital to success. I think about what a God send twitter has been for a lot of virtual workers. It’s like the office cooler.

    I am all for friends Jonathan!

  9. […] Friends at work, divine of disaster? @ Awake at the Wheel […]

  10. Tim Brownson says:

    I think there is a 3rd reason.

    When realitionships blow up at work they usually blow up badly and everybody knows about them in quick time. Therefore, they may seem more frequent than they really are because of the ‘publicity’ that they generate. Two people getting along and working well never makes news and I have never known an HR department sit down and work out why they have things on an even keel.

  11. Anthea says:

    Interesting points being made here.

    It seems as though everyone understands the risks but the benefits outweigh them.

    I have always had a good relationship with my various bosses and fellow employees, I haven’t made lasting deep friendships with any of them away from work, but it sure makes the job more bearable.

    I have only been at my current job for a matter of weeks, but the team is chosen partly based on their personality and wether or not they will fit in to the group. Which is a great idea, it ensures a dynamic and co-operative environment.

    Pro-work-friends from me!

  12. sharon says:

    Where did my good close friends come from (other than the few from high school and college)….at work. And I think she knows me better than I know myself (which could be scary at times!). I’m all for it. It makes the workplace a, friendlier 😉 nicer environment to be in.

    I’ve worked in offices where colleagues are just colleagues. There are the occasional dinners or karaokes. And at the end of the day, that’s all it is. They are not the ones you’ll want to call if you find yourself in trouble.

    And then there are colleagues who become your best friends in life. They are there when you need support and guidance. Some of us spend more time at the workplace with them than at home and with our families (unless you’re lucky enough to be a stay-at-home blogger-dad who treadmill walks and blogs at the same time)

    So yes, developing friendships at work is good. When work ends, the friendship goes on…outside of that workplace.

  13. […] as Fields writes in his recent article “Friends at Work, Divine or Disaster?,” fostering a comfortable social environment within a business can lead to serious […]

  14. No Debt Plan says:

    I am definitely a fan of friends at work. I don’t agree with dating at work, but friends can keep you engaged in difficult times. Had a rough week? A lunch with a more experience colleague can show you there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  15. Kristen says:

    I went into business with a couple of friends and it would be an understatement to say it turned into a nightmare. I have no contact with them any more as a result. My advice, don’t go into business with friends. If you make friends after the fact that’s another story but it is usually a good idea to keep work and friends separate.

  16. Christina says:

    I used to have a boss with a policy of not making friends at work, strangely enough we became friends but he was very vocal in his disapproval of me becoming friends either with professional colleagues or my team. Ultimately I became very close to my team and have to honestly say that were it not for their friendship I would not have survived the most difficult and stressful times I had in my career. Long story short – it has to do with people and I’m all for being friends with good people.

  17. Jon says:

    I think friends at work is very good. However I think starting a business with a friends can be very hard.

    I also have a relationship with a girl at work, and I’m her superior. I met her outside of work and had nothing to do with hiring her, btw. Works very well, because we talked about it and both know that work is work. I do look more forward to work nowadays tho:)

  18. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Kristen – Totally agree, starting a business or taking an ownership position in a business with good friends is a big risk.

    I’ve seen it play out well, but I’ve seen it play out horribly far more often. It’s a rare friendship that can survive the brutal honesty that needs to come with the major challenges in a business cycle.

  19. Rhea says:

    I almost always have at least one really good friend at work. It keeps me sane. Jonathan, great to meet YOU at SXSW!

  20. NJ WebGuy says:

    What good timing for me to stumble across these comments; I was just recently told I should be expecting to hear from a friend of mine because she wants to start a business.

    The more I think about it, it might be a good idea for me to avoid getting involved too deeply.

  21. Gofling Girl says:

    This could simply be timing, but I have a friend at work who makes a point of making sure I don’t get work done if she’s having problems (usually revolving around her lovelife). But I can say that she is someone who I would regularly do things outside of work with and who would help me if I needed it outside of work, so I put up with the drama on occasion during the week. I also sit right next to her and collaborate on projects occasionally so it’s not like I can ignore her…