Four in five employees have friends at work. Friendships can be positive, but sometimes they can go awry and cause conflict. How should your business approach this issue?

We spend most of our waking hours working. Indeed, we may spend more time with colleagues than our own families.

So, it’s only natural that, in their efforts to make such a life-consuming activity more comfortable and desirable, your employees may seek out friends at work. Sometimes they may form close, meaningful relationships with colleagues.

Yet, for employers, is it beneficial to your company? How might work friendships go awry – and what can you do to prevent problems that may arise for your business? Can you control employees’ friendships with each other to any degree?

Pros and cons of having friends at work

Pros 

By making friends at work, employees can:

  • Fulfill a basic need for human connection
  • Form personally valuable relationships that enable them to flourish in the workplace; for example, friends at work can:
    • Provide encouragement
    • Serve as a sounding board for ideas
    • Share knowledge
    • Help their friends to develop skills
    • Celebrate successes with their friends
    • Help friends in weathering a crisis
  • Exhibit more of their authentic selves in the workplace
  • Feel more vulnerable (in a good way) and less judged
  • Enjoy higher levels of confidence
  • Feel a greater sense of acceptance and belonging, and less isolated and lonely
  • Improve collaboration
  • Have more fun
  • Reduce stress

From an employer perspective, these deeper social connections formed within your workplace can support employees’ mental health by boosting overall happiness and morale. By having friends, work can become an activity that people look forward to. In turn, your company could develop a very positive workplace culture.

It can also prolong employees’ tenure at your company while improving performance and keeping them more engaged and motivated.

Cons

However, your employees becoming friends results in some risks for your company:

  • Too much socializing can impair productivity.
  • Tension can result from employees having a disagreement or a falling out, or if one friend is promoted or given a sought-after project assignment, for example, and the other isn’t.
  • A potential conflict of interest could arise from manager-subordinate friendships. After all, no one wants to discipline or critique a friend.
  • Manager-subordinate friendships can also lead to accusations of favoritism if a manager is seen as giving their friend preferential treatment – or even just more attention – over other team members.
  • Work friendships can create spaces for negativity to fester. For example, employees may bond over shared grievances in the workplace and then reinforce each other’s negative feelings about the company in daily conversations (or gripe sessions).
  • Sensitive, work-related conversations can happen that you’d prefer employees avoid. According to the Olivet Nazarene University study, 64% of employees with friends at work discuss conflict with other coworkers and 68% talk about salary.  
  • If one friend leaves the company, it can lower morale for the friend left behind. In fact, the Olivet Nazarene University study found that 10% of employees reported leaving a company because their friend did.
  • Cliques can form, which can make some employees feel excluded.

These risks aren’t carried entirely by companies either. Employees can put themselves in a vulnerable position, too.

Most of us don’t anticipate betrayals of trust when we initially form friendships. Close friendships feel like safe spaces to share sensitive, personal information about ourselves that really should be separate from work (e.g., information related to our finances, health, love life, family life, etc.). Friends at work can also have a tendency to reveal their true feelings about their job and company.

But what if a friendship ever falls apart? Might someone who’s feeling hurt and has emotions running high could share all that information with others in the workplace? And how might it be used against their ex-friend.

The conclusion for businesses

It’s a mixed bag. Obviously, there are a lot of benefits for employees and employers alike. We all enjoy being around people we like. And who doesn’t want to have fun and feel accepted?

Much like with interoffice dating and romantic relationships, close friendships in the workplace can get complicated. They might keep employees happy, but there are a lot of drawbacks. The bottom line: Workplace relationships that get too personal can affect business negatively at some point. There’s a fine line – work and friendship don’t always go together, and some people discover this lesson the hard way.

At the same time, you’re busy running a business. You don’t want to micromanage employees’ relationships with each other and monitor the friendships that form. Friendships happen organically. And you can’t control who employees hang out with over lunch or outside work hours.

What happens outside work is private. Your main objective – and all you can do – is to prevent any dysfunction from creeping into the workplace and causing problems.

A ground rule for workplace friendships

It’s simple: Business comes first. Keep it professional.

You hired each member of your team to perform a specific function for your business – not because you’re nice and you want to give them an opportunity to make more friends. Work obligations are their primary responsibility and should be their main focus. Any other benefits that result from their position at the company, such as friendships, are secondary.

In the workplace, clear boundaries should be drawn. Friendships should be conducted as an “after hours relationship” and not as a “business hours relationship” that could create drama and conflict within the workplace.

It might be a good idea to include this rule in a company fraternization policy, which usually covers both romantic relationships and friends at work. This policy should be documented within your company’s employee handbook.

As it relates to friendships in the workplace, a strong fraternization policy should:

  • Explain the rationale for keeping personal friendships out of the workplace
  • Set expectations for workplace behavior
  • Describe conduct that initiates the disciplinary process
  • Specify whether any stricter rules exist for managers and their subordinates

How to encourage a welcoming and friendly, yet professional, workplace

1.      Promote open communication, collaboration and inclusivity.

Your workplace should be one in which employees feel free to speak up, share ideas or raise questions and concerns to anyone – not just their limited circle of friends – without fear of retribution or being shut down. Tell employees that you value their input, and demonstrate this through your actions.

Let employees know that managers always have an open door if there’s an issue they’d like to discuss.

Take steps to improve collaboration among teams while making everyone feel valued.

When it makes sense, shift around project teams periodically so your employees get to know other colleagues and don’t get too stuck in a routine with the people they’re most familiar with and perhaps share much in common. This will help them to gain exposure to other personalities, working styles and ways of thinking – an important part of improved collaboration and busting out of groupthink, or a tendency toward conformity of thought and approaches that can stifle creativity and marginalize others. (This may also prevent workplace factionalism.)

Ask friend groups at work to be discreet about outside-of-work plans that don’t include others and to practice mindfulness about leaving others out. Or, better yet, encourage them to invite along someone they don’t know well to lunch or happy hour, and make the effort to get to know them better and expand their network.

2.      Offer mentorships or “buddy programs.”

 Friendships aren’t the only valuable relationship an employee can cultivate at work.

When an employee is fresh out of school and new to the workforce, or they’ve switched departments, companies or even industries, the change can be overwhelming. To ease the transition and facilitate a smoother assimilation, it helps to have someone an employee can go to with questions, help them get settled in or even just serve as a familiar face in a crowd of strangers. That’s why some companies assign “buddies” to recent graduates, new hires or employees who have experienced a significant change in their role. (These relationships can also help foster professionalism in more junior staff members.)

When an employee wants to move upward on the organizational hierarchy or they otherwise have a clear direction in mind for their career, a mentor can be helpful in facilitating their progress. Usually someone who is more senior and experienced within the organization, a mentor can coach employees on the skills they need to develop, introduce employees to the right contacts and help them gain access to the projects that will put them on leaders’ radar.

3.      Form cross-functional teams.

We’ve already mentioned the need to shift project teams around. It can also be helpful to establish cross-functional teams whose members can support each other in serving the mission of the business. To get started, find employees with complementary roles who are interested in learning other aspects of the business, expanding their business acumen and getting to know others in different departments.

Creating cross-functional teams enables employees to become acquainted with more of their co-workers outside their bubble – people they may have otherwise never met. It also has the added benefit of training employees to cover for colleagues who are out of the office and minimize any business disruptions.

4.      Host social activities to which all employees are invited. 

Yes, business comes first – but you want your team members to know everyone else at the company and be able to forge effective working relationships. That involves getting to know people as human beings in more casual, relaxed settings.

Whether it’s a company party or a periodic lunch gathering, give all employees the opportunity to interact and become comfortable with each other. Make sure everyone feels welcome and included.

What to do when friendships cause conflict

If friendship-related problems spills over into the workplace, address the issue immediately in the best interests of your team so the negativity doesn’t affect a greater number of employees.

Follow your company’s conflict resolution policy and, if necessary, your disciplinary policy.

If your employees who are friends can’t resolve an issue among themselves professionally and quickly, then be prepared to step in and have a manager mediate the issue. Depending on the cause for hostility, it may be necessary to involve human resources (HR) to determine long-term solutions for accommodating the conflict, such as moving an employee to a different team.

Summing it all up

Having friends at work can be enormously beneficial to employees for many reasons – and that’s why so many employees today report having these meaningful connections with colleagues. However, having friends at work can also create many challenges for businesses to navigate.

Since you can’t police employees’ friendships, make sure that employees understand your company’s fraternization policy – especially the need for clear boundaries to be drawn between the workplace and personal friendship – and encourage them to maintain professionalism and a focus on job responsibilities during work hours. Promote a friendly and inclusive workplace for all. And be ready to stop conflict in its tracks when it seeps into your workplace.

Friendships at work certainly aren’t the only way to keep employees engaged and happy. To learn more, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to being a best place to work.

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