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Harnessing the Potential of Workplace Friendships

Three business people talking in an office.

​Rashi Dubey has experienced the benefits of workplace friendships firsthand. As a global HR business partner at HP Inc. in greater New York City, she finds that being friends with the people she works with enables her to be more effective in her role. These friendships help keep her "plugged into the grapevine" so she can find out what's going on in the organization and exert influence.

"Workplace friendships form the architecture and scaffolding for how work gets done," said Jessica Methot, human resource management professor at Rutgers University. These informal networks bridge barriers and allow people to gain access to resources and information they might not otherwise be able to get.

Research shows that workplace friends can provide emotional support as well. A 2014 study conducted by Globoforce, an international employee recognition company, showed that the more friends people have at work, the more productive, engaged and happier they will be, and the more likely they will be to stay. 

Focus On Creating a Friendship-Friendly Culture

HR has an important role to play in helping to create an environment where productive workplace friendships can flourish.

"A lot depends on the culture where the organization is housed," Dubey said. "Friendships are defined differently from country to country." Her native India, for example, has a "friendship culture" where employees are expected to have personal relationships with each other and even with colleagues' extended families. On-the-job success often depends on whether people are good friends outside of work.

Dubey sees the U.S. as being more "matter of fact" and transactional. However, this can vary from industry to industry and from organization to organization.

"Co-workers are more likely to become friends in organizations with more interactive potential," said Patricia Sias, Ph.D., a professor of communications at the University of Arizona.

According to Sias, HR can encourage the development of workplace friendships in two ways: by designing opportunities for employees to develop personal connections, and by encouraging people to work together on shared tasks and projects

Workplace friendships differ from other workplace relationships. Because they have a more personal focus, they are more likely to be formed on the basis of factors such as personality, perceived similarities and shared concerns, Sias said. In other words, people want to be friends with people they like and can relate to.

HR can create opportunities for like-minded colleagues to gather. At Geico in Washington, D.C., employees are encouraged to start new clubs based on shared interests and to play on company softball or soccer teams. At Credit Karma in San Francisco, employees celebrate company milestones with evenings out at baseball games or local comedy clubs.

Time is an important variable. For employees who are balancing work and family responsibilities, it may be hard to find time for after-hours activities. At NuStar Energy in San Antonio, employees get paid time off to participate in company-sponsored charitable events at Ronald McDonald House and the YMCA, among others. These activities provide a vehicle for employees to meet new people within the organization that they might not otherwise come in contact with and set the stage for productive friendships to develop.

At the U.S. Surgeon General's Office, Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General, implemented a practice called "Inside Scoop" as a way to encourage the formation of positive workplace friendships. During weekly staff meetings, each individual was asked to take five minutes to share something personal with their co-workers so that they could get to know and understand one another in a more holistic way. Afterward, Murthy noticed that staff members seemed more emotionally connected and socially engaged, a development that he believes lays the foundation for satisfying and meaningful workplace friendships. 

It's Not Always Smooth Sailing

Research conducted by Methot and her colleagues shows that workplace friendships can be a mixed blessing. While they are positively associated with job performance, researchers found an indirect negative effect related to emotional exhaustion.

"Workplace friendships are considered multiplexed relationships because they exist in more than one context," Methot said. "There's an instrumentality attached to these relationships. People have to balance being friends with getting work done. It can be emotionally draining."

A 20-something human resources assistant laughingly told an interviewer that her "biggest weakness is having too many friends at work." In fact, it was no joking matter. At her previous job, she was frequently reprimanded for spending too much time chatting with her co-worker friends instead of doing her work. Not only did her supervisor question the assistant's work ethic, she also viewed her as a disruptive influence on her peers. After several warnings, the supervisor terminated her employment.

While it's tempting to chalk this up to the assistant being young and inexperienced, it is not uncommon for workplace friendships to get people into trouble—at any age and at every level. In her executive coaching practice, Laurie Anderson, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist in Oak Park, Ill., finds that many managers and leaders hesitate to address performance problems with people they consider friends.

"They avoid hard conversations because they don't want to hurt their friends," Anderson said. "But this misunderstands the context. The work has to come first."

She encourages HR to educate managers about this dynamic.

"HR professionals don't need to intervene; they need to caution. They can acknowledge the human tendency to want to protect those they care about. But, in the end, decision-makers need to set their feelings aside and focus on the data," Anderson said.

It is usually beneficial to establish some ground rules to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations.

Clinical psychologist Irene Levine, an advice columnist known as "the Friendship Doctor," shares Anderson's belief that when performance problems emerge between friends, it may be necessary to put the friendship aside in order to deal with the work issue.

Levine once fielded a question from a reader named Mindy who was having trouble dealing with a co-worker who she felt was taking advantage of their friendship. Although they worked side by side in a two-person department, her friend treated her like she was his secretary rather than his peer. The final straw came when Mindy discovered that he was taking her ideas (garnered from their private conversations) and presenting them as his own.

Levine encouraged Mindy to think about how she would address this problem if she was not friends with her co-worker. She then recommended that Mindy have a heart-to-heart conversation with him about the way he was behaving toward her and suggest ways they might work more productively together.

The goal was not to preserve the friendship, Levine said. The goal was to create a respectful and cordial working relationship. Once that was established, they could decide whether they still wanted to be friends. 

What Is HR's Role?

HR professionals have an important role to play in the healthy evolution of workplace friendships. In addition to helping create opportunities for positive shared experiences, HR can educate employees about potential problems and help develop strategies to address sensitive issues.

"HR's role is more about partnering than policing," Anderson said. "HR can partner with people throughout the organization to raise awareness about the implications and potential consequences of workplace friendships. And, if problems arise, be a sounding board to help employees work through, and deal with, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable situations."

Dubey encourages leaders to be aware of how their friendships impact others in the organization. For example, when a supervisor is friends with a direct report, this may create a perception that the supervisor is playing favorites and that the direct report is getting preferential treatment. It's important to show fairness and consistency. People should be rewarded based on their performance, not because of who they're friends with.

Some co-workers may become best friends. Other friendships exist within the context of work, primarily as a vehicle to get work done.

How you approach them is a personal decision. Dubey leans toward being what she calls "personally professional." For her, the workplace is not necessarily the right place to share her deepest, darkest secrets.

"You have to get personal because you need to develop great rapport. But you can do it in a professional way that still observes some boundaries," she said.

For Anderson, the litmus test of workplace friendships is performative: "The best workplace friendships drive performance and allow people to excel," she said.

Regardless of whether you choose to be an "open book" or prefer to remain more circumspect about your personal life, there is a baseline attitude that every HR professional can model and encourage: By showing respect for, and interest in, the people you work with, you lay the foundation for high-quality relationships and encourage others to do the same. Ideally, the result is an environment where people enjoy working together and do their best. 

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