How to Balance Work and Friendships After College

Because keeping in touch matters

By Kyra Sutton, Ph.D. September 10, 2019
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In the hustle and bustle of starting a new job—maybe in a new city, probably with a whole new set of colleagues—we lose track of the friends we made in college. Being so busy, we tend to keep in touch only with people at work or people we see often, such as our significant other or parents.

That takes a toll on personal relationships. By age 25, men and women start losing friends rapidly.  

That's a problem, in more ways than one. Researcher Neal Roese studies the science of regret. He found that people experience many disappointments in life, but the biggest regret is often losing connections with close friends. Specifically, Roese's research demonstrates:

  • We tend to neglect our personal connections—and subsequently regret having done so.
  • Maintaining close friendships is a worthwhile effort.

Why We Need Friends

Healthy friendships provide support and fun and can actually help you live longer. In many ways, friends can help you in your career—and not just through networking or calling in favors.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review described the career benefits of maintaining friendships:

  • Friends help you perform better on the job and earn more, partly because they provide an emotional buffer that keeps you motivated and focused.
  • Career and friendships can reinforce each other, as when friends at different firms get together to share big-picture career insights, inspiring each person's passion for professional growth.

Whether we see a friend every day or every six months, we can leverage these interactions to locate new opportunities, ask for help, find business partners, seek out support when we have a bad day at work, gather perspectives, offer help and more.

Early in your career—when life feels super busy and sometimes overwhelming—there are several reasons to remain invested in maintaining friendships.

Finding new jobs. If you choose to leave your job, it would be much easier to land a new role if you know people you can call for job leads. Approximately 85 percent of all jobs are found through networking.

Seeing from different perspectives. When you are designing a new process, service or initiative, vetting your ideas with others is important. And to really push your thinking, you need to interact with others who will play devil's advocate—that is, someone who will question your assumptions and give you a perspective on why your approach may not be the best option. To get that perspective, you must find someone with strong opinions and who wants to give you feedback.

Further, while your immediate inclination may be to brainstorm ideas with co-workers, it's much easier to be vulnerable and open to feedback from someone with whom you have a longer-term friendship, like a college buddy. Researchers say friends are good at playing devil's advocate because they "know us so well, they are able to see things that we can't and aren't afraid to share their dose of reality with you."

Providing information. Friends help you gain exposure to information. While you can certainly read, picking up the phone and reaching out to someone you know who can share insight is also helpful.

Offering advice and support. Early in your career, you are likely to make a lot of job changes. You're not being a flake; you're exploring different possibilities to figure out what you enjoy the most. During transitions, you need support from people you know who won't judge your actions.

How to Be a Good Friend

Despite knowing how important it is to maintain friendships, we often fall short and, for example, reach out only when we need something. We ruin friendships by not showing up when the other person invites us to a function. We wait too long—maybe years—to reach out to people.

To maintain friendships that will benefit not only your personal life, but also your career, you must be willing to nurture friendships by taking the following actions:

1. Show up. It may seem simple, but if someone invites you to something, for example, out for drinks, brunch or dinner or to a birthday celebration, show up on time, be "present" (e.g., listen to your friend, ask how things are going) and thank him or her for inviting you.

2. Make "yes" meaningful. If someone asks you to do something (e.g., write a review on LinkedIn) and you agree to do it, then do it. If someone asks you to review his or her resume and you say you will, then act on it. When you are asked to do something, think long and hard about it before making a commitment. Sometimes we say "yes" because we are in the moment. Other times we say "yes" because we don't know how to say "no."

3. Acknowledge your friend's help. If someone helps you in one of the ways mentioned above, don't take that help for granted. Do something to acknowledge the support you've been given.

4. Don't wait to respond. Avoid talking about your "availability" to get together with a friend. When people with whom you want to maintain a friendship reach out to you, respond to them. That doesn't mean you say "yes" to every invitation, but do acknowledge them.

5. Check in on them. A lot can be said for how social media can bring people together. We get to see people living their best lives, traveling to new places, getting engaged, buying their first house, going on an expatriate assignment, etc. But the problem is we rely on social media too much. We think that because we see the highlights of their lives, these friends must be thriving. In reality, you don't know how a person is doing until you check in.

6. Say hello—and mean it! When you do check in, don't say hello over text. Pick up the phone, find time to grab coffee or a drink, and sit down and talk to the person. Give your friend your undivided attention. Put your phone away. What's the point of meeting someone in person if all you are going to do is sit and look at your texts?

7. Treat them. It may not seem like much, but an unexpected free meal or drink will make your friends smile. Even if they make decent money, your gesture of picking up the tab will go far.

8. Recommend something. Perhaps your friend wants to find cool podcasts or the best rooftop bar. People put a lot of faith in recommendations, and getting one from a friend is meaningful. So tailor your recommendations to your friend's interests. If you know someone is a vegan, don't recommend a cool steakhouse. If the person has kids, and especially young ones, don't recommend a new lounge that just opened.

9. Learn what matters to them. How can you give people tailored recommendations if you don't know anything about them? Get to know what matters in people's lives. And remember, even if you've known a friend for a long time, what matters to him or her will change. During your 20s and 30s, what matters today may not matter next week. If you stay in touch with people regularly, then you'll have a better real-time sense of what matters to them.

10. Help them. When you do something for someone—especially if you were not asked to do it—that gesture goes a long way. It shows that your friend can rely on you. And that is priceless. Now, that is not to say you should conspire to do something for someone just because you know a month later you are going to ask for a favor. Rather, you should proactively figure out ways to help those with whom you want to maintain relationships.

11. Know when to call it quits. We can't discuss friendships without mentioning people who should not be in your life. Regardless of how long you've known someone, if you feel drained or stressed out after you have seen that person, it's time to give up the friendship. I'll give you a personal example:

I had a friend I'd known since high school. We had lots of fun and shared a lot in common. We both were smart, cared about what we wore, flirted with a lot of different guys, and spent hours talking on the phone. We didn't go to the same college, but we were within driving distance of each other.

Once we graduated from college, interacting with her was a chore. She often accused me of being judgmental and arrogant. She was not supportive when I was in graduate school, and she never showed up to anything important.

One day, she reached out over e-mail and told me she didn't want to be in touch any longer. She said I was selfish, immature and "fake." None of those labels are true, but I can admit I wasn't my best self when I was around her. After I received that e-mail, we parted ways, and I can truly say there are no regrets, and I don't miss her friendship.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to end a long-term friendship, but sometimes it's a necessary evil. Letting go of a draining friendship is a sign of emotional maturity and self-awareness.

Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.

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