Parks and Recreation. The Office. Scrubs. These are just a few of the many examples in pop culture that illustrate workplace friendships. With most employees spending about a 1/3 of their lives at work—and another 1/3 sleeping—it’s clear that the relationships formed there can be impactful, and positive.
There can be big benefits for both employees and organizations when they form strong relationships in the workplace. “Employees with strong work relationships are happier and have a built-in support system and sounding board when they need it,” says Stephanie Naznitsky, executive director of staffing firm Office Team. “Socializing with coworkers can build camaraderie and give you a much-needed break during the day. Plus, having those connections can work in your favor if you require help on something down the line,” she says.
Her perspectives are supported by data from Gallup which tells us that, based on their research, having a “best friend” at work can help to boost employee satisfaction, engagement, and loyalty. And, certainly, business professionals would generally agree that building a strong network of internal contacts can be a positive career move.
But can socializing with colleagues ever lead to potentially negative consequences? We have only to look to the #MeToo movement for one very egregious way in which it can. Even mutually desired friendships, platonic or otherwise, though, can have an unintended, and sometimes undesirable, impact on your career.
Here we take a look at X do’s and don’ts for socializing with colleagues from business experts and coaches with both personal and professional experiences in this area.
Do Participate in Social Events, at Least on Occasion
“The most common mistake many people make when it comes to office socializing is to not engage in it,” says career coach EB Sanders. Never going to office events or coworker happy hours send a loud and clear message, she says: “You don’t care about these people.” Not taking time, on occasion, to spend with work colleagues, she says, will generally cause you to be seen “as aloof, disconnected and unengaged”—not traits that you should want to nurture.
Perhaps worse, Sanders says: “If you’re not bonding with teammates, department heads and C-levels, they may have no ide who you are and how invested in the company you are.”
You don’t have to go to every event, you don’t have to have a drink if that’s not your thing, but Sanders advises: “Show up, chat with your work friends and step outside that circle to get in front of leaders and managers you normally wouldn’t get face time with.”
Don’t Engage in Clique-y Behaviors
“The workplace can be a wonderful place to connect with others, but there are cautions to too much closeness,” says Dr. Janie Fritz, professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Duquesne University. Fritz specializes in communication ethics and professional civility and has written several books and articles on these subjects—including Professional Civility: Communicative Virtue at Work (Peter Lang, 2013).
“If you become good friends with a work associate, one mistake to avoid is showing that closeness—even if it’s a good friendship and not a romance—on a daily basis at the office,” Fritz cautions. Doing so, she says, can lead others to feel excluded and, in the case of three, four or more close associates, lead to others viewing you as part of a clique.
Do Be Cognizant of Perceptions
One of the potential risks of close relationships with associates occurs when one moves on to a high-level role, potentially even a role that a close colleague reports to. “If one of you gets promoted, you may have to change your conversational habits,” says Fritz. In addition, she says, confidentiality may become an issue—whether real or perceived.
In addition, Naznitsky cautions: “Supervisors need to be careful not to show favoritism, or even the appearance of it, and avoid being ‘too buddy-buddy’ with staff.”
Don’t Overdo it on Social Media
The advent of social media has added some additional complexity to workplace relationships. Should you friend a coworker, boss or subordinate on social media? Opinions vary.
Naznitsky points to an Office Team survey indicating that 71 percent of professionals say it’s appropriate to connect with colleagues on Facebook. “That percentage is slightly lower for Twitter (61%, Instagram (56%) and Snapchat (44%),” she says. And, fewer than half of the senior managers responding feel this way.
“Social media offers a challenge to keeping the public of work life and the privacy of personal life separate,” says Fritz. “Offhand comments or remarks taken the wrong way can go viral, destroying careers that have taken years to build. Politics and religion are contested terrain, and tempers can fray easily when our deepest commitments are challenged or misunderstood, so beware of too much disclosure or freely ‘friending work associates,” she advises.
“Ideally, I want leaders to not friend or follow their employees, but I don’t feel as if that is a realistic expectation—especially for people in the first months or year of a growing company,” says Leila Bulling Towne is an executive coach and leadership facilitator.
“Yet, as the company matures, I feel leaders need to ensure that their brand—what people feel about you, know about you, and say about you—should remain focused on their work—not their hobbies, loves, and ‘likes’,” Bulling Towne says. “This thinking should also apply to all employees of all levels in any organization.”
Naznitsky recommends a potential compromise: “Consider suggesting work-related contacts join your network on professional networking sites that may be more appropriate for maintaining business relationships, such as LinkedIn,” she advises.
Do Take the Long View
Finally, recommends Bulling Towne, take the long view when thinking about the socializing you will, or won’t, do with colleagues. “What you say and do today—in person, in the office, and online—lasts so much longer today than before Facebook days. Think about your career a few years from now before becoming best buddies with everyone you work with today.”