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Most professionals spend more of their waking hours in the office than at home. When colleagues’ faces are the main ones you see for 40+ hours a week, the question naturally arises: are workplace friendships career savvy or career suicide?
While your general philosophy of friendships may be “the more, the merrier,” making friends in the office has a unique set of pros and cons. While regular friendships depend on sharing trusts, confidences, and at times intimate secrets, getting this close at work has its drawbacks. “The workplace is a cauldron of competing interests including resource competition, alliances, dependencies, and personal dysfunctions including backstabbing and gossiping,” says Dr. Michael H. Smith, conflict resolution expert and psychotherapist. “Before you become vulnerable, scope out the territory.” Your professional persona and “off-duty” personality may be quite different—and for good reason. Often our nonworking selves and relationships are significantly more casual than is warranted for a professional situation. When you mix the two, the result may be messy politics and dynamics that can complicate your life both at work and at home. Another common problem can arise if a friend at work receives a promotion and you don’t. Promotions can change workplace friendships, so you should approach the situation diplomatically. “When an office friend gets a promotion over you, it may be a little hard to deal with,” says business etiquette expert Kerri Garbis, founder of Ovation Communication. “But keep in mind that holding that against your friend can only potentially destroy a great business relationship. Your friend didn’t promote herself. Cheer her on instead of freezing her out. Who knows—she may soon be in the position to promote you as well.”
Is it okay to be friends with your boss? According to Sharon Rosenblatt of Accessibility Partners, the answer is yes. She has developed a tight friendship with her boss that includes going to concerts after work and trying new restaurants together, as well as spending the holidays with her boss’s family and running with her boss’s husband in road races. “The work/life boundary is a little fuzzy with my boss, but I truly enjoy the ‘intrusion,’” says Rosenblatt. “A lot of people I talk to about this relationship find it weird, but I really like having a friend that will visit if I’m not feeling well or feels comfortable letting me watch her kids.” Others recommend a more conservative approach. Meredith Fuller, author of the forthcoming book Working with Bitches: Identify the Eight Types of Office Mean Girls and Rise Above Workplace Nastiness, suggests thinking of your boss as similar to your mentor—while you don’t have them as “friends,” you can be closer to them than an acquaintance. “You can’t have a horizontal friendship with your boss—there are subtle power and control issues,” says Fuller. “A ‘friendship’ may hinder your career—your boss may worry about favoritism and err on the punitive side. You may not hear the constructive criticism you need to progress because your boss is uncomfortable about the role confusion.” Fuller adds that being overly friendly with your boss may result in your workmates resenting your inside “ear,” which could lead peers to exclude you from their conversations. Therefore, her advice is to stay friendly with your boss, but wait until you no longer work in the same place before sharing intimate exchanges.
Is it smart to be “friends” on Facebook with people you work with? Rosenblatt admits that while she and her boss are Facebook friends, she does occasionally hide some of her more colorful posts and pictures from her. “I guess no one needs to know about Jell-O shots on the weekend as long as I’m ready to work on Monday,” says Rosenblatt. “I appreciate our mutual honesty but am very aware of the roles, so I try not to over-share.” Fuller agrees that it’s wise to be cautious about workplace “friending” on social media. In fact, she recommends avoiding it in most situations, due to the uncomfortable dynamics that can arise through its use. “Imagine—someone wants to friend you, but you don’t want to hit accept for them,” she says. “However, they know you accepted other workmates. Or what if you invite some colleagues but they blow you off? Nice as pie to your face, but they don’t want you as their Facebook friend? Mull over that, when you know they accepted your peers.” Worse yet, you could end up in this messy situation: “Half the office knows about your latest romance, wine-driven bar tap-dancing and what you really think of the marketing department, while the rest of the office assumes you are Miss Priss, the workaholic,” she says. She suggests that professionals remember that what’s posted on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook. “You lose your role definition and work persona, and risk offending colleagues with too much information, or by refusing to accept them,” she says. “It’s hard enough negotiating the politics at work let alone the virtual politics of your private life.” Financial planner Hank Coleman cautions employees that employers can use Facebook and other social media sites as a tracking tool. Coleman has witnessed such horror stories firsthand, including social media being used against employees by their bosses who are their friends online. “Many supervisors where I work are able to keep tabs on employee locations and productivity through social media and posts,” says Coleman. “It is very easy to find out when an employee has taken a long lunch, for example, when they post about it on Facebook or check in on Foursquare.” Coleman adds that Facebook photos can be used against employees when behavior is taken out of context and then passed around the office, or even embellished to make the employee look less than professional. “I used to work in an office where they would start every meeting with a funny PowerPoint slide that captured Facebook photos from employee profiles, doctored with captions to spice them up,” he says. “There is a real danger in getting too close with bosses and subordinates alike on social media websites.”
On balance, Heather Taylor, social media manager at MyCorporation, believes that requesting to be friends with your boss or coworkers on Facebook is a personal choice—as is deciding whether to accept friend requests from superiors or colleagues. To avoid making a choice tantamount to social media suicide at work, Garbis offers these etiquette tips:
Taylor adds that Facebook exposes a side of yourself that you may not want to share in the workplace, so it’s important to approach friending thoughtfully. “If you don’t want the people you work with to see that, then steer clear of friending them,” says Taylor. “If you are confident that your social media presence is just as respectful as your IRL (in real life) self is, then friend request away!”
About Robin Madell
Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology, and public-interest issues. She is a contributing writer to U.S. News & World Report and serves as a copywriter, speechwriter, and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in New York and San Francisco. Robin is the author of Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30 and co-author of The Strong Principles: Career Success.