NAVIGATING FRIENDSHIP BOUNDARIES WITHIN THE WORKPLACE
BY LAILA ELISE
We all know that the old adage, “Never mix business with pleasure,” isn’t one most people follow—that many who share an office also share happy hours, confidences, and the occasional dalliance. Humans, as primates, are inherently social creatures, so it’s only natural (literally) that we develop intimate relationships—and not just of the romantic variety, but also work friendships. We’ll save office-based romance and its challenges for a future issue; my quest for the moment is to explore when its friendships are good and when they’re hurtful, both professionally and personally.
Psychotherapist Terrence Real has developed a “Relationship Grid” demonstrating that, as with any ongoing social interaction, the key is to find what can be a delicate balance between being too open and being unapproachable. The point of his Grid is, as he explains on his site, to take a “snapshot of where you are at any given moment… to ask yourself, ‘Where am I and where do I need to go?’… ‘Am I uncontained and letting too much out, or walled-off and letting nothing out?’”
Some work friend factors to consider:
YOUR PLACE AND PROFESSIONAL ROLE. Obviously, for those in a senior position, it’s vital to maintain separation in order to effectively manage a staff, but that doesn’t mean being an island. Certain company cultures are more relaxed (think Google’s famous employee beer fridge) when it comes to personal interactions among employees. An institution’s size is also of importance, as there may be more openness to camaraderie in a smaller team. A good pathway to a lasting friendship, I’ve found, is to apply the simple rule of simply not discussing work outside of work (as well as the corollary: not discussing personal situations/issues at the office). If that effort fails, you might just be happy acquaintances, which is perfectly fine.
BOUNDARY SETTING. It might seem clinical—the very antithesis of friendly— but it’s important to define boundaries before making a work friend. Think ahead and plan for worst-case scenarios. If you know you tend to transform into a gossip after a couple of beers, remind yourself of that (I’ve even installed a phone timestamp pop-up that reminds me, with just a word or two, to be careful about sharing with colleagues). Make rules and stick with them. It’s not dissimilar to how you’d need to consider workplace dating—how you’d react if the relationship didn’t work out or if it got too intense too quickly, and strategize accordingly. What’s perhaps even more critical than creating perimeters is communicating them; be honest about what you can and cannot share, even after a few martinis. (“For both our sakes, I just can’t get into that,” is an honest and effective way to keep your relationship intact and preserve both your jobs.)
FAIR PLAY. It’s easy to let a work friendship devolve into a clique. On the clock, treat each other as you would anyone else on the team. Special treatment or consideration—especially if one of you is at a higher level—will alienate others as surely as night follows day. Ask, ‘Would I behave the same way if I didn’t have a personal history with this person?’ A true answer will both honor that history and keep you employed.