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On the Up and Up: Keeping Workplace Relationships Professional

For many professionals, work is like a second home. We spend many of our waking hours there, and we communicate and achieve in collaboration with other people while we do.

It's not surprising, then, that many close friendships start in the workplace. While it's great to work with friends, forming friendships with people at work also carries the risk of creating additional sites of conflict unless everyone involved takes care to maintain proper boundaries.

What Are the Risks of Making Friendships at Work?

At first, it appears that a workplace friendship does more good than harm. You and your colleague are now working together better than ever, sharing ideas and experiencing closer communication.

Taken too far, however, these benefits to you and your friend can have a negative impact on your work and co-workers. Common perils associated with workplace friendships include:

  • Overfamiliarity, which can manifest in inappropriate workplace language, jokes or behavior.
  • Distraction from work due to socializing.
  • Resentment from colleagues who feel "shut out" of the friendship circle.

Striking a balance is important. A Gallup poll recently found that 60 percent of workers with workplace friendships said they loved their jobs, compared to 24 percent who said they had no friends at work. In other words, the answer isn't to avoid making friends -- it's to navigate those relationships more mindfully.

Key Steps for Setting and Maintaining Workplace Boundaries

You don't need to quit your job just because one of your colleagues is now a good friend. But you do need to be mindful of the context in which you choose to be a colleague first or a friend first.

The following tactics will help you and your work friends thrive on the job by creating smart boundaries. If you're a veteran HR professional or are experienced in employee relations, these ideas may not be revelatory; however, they will prove useful when advising or training employees on appropriate workplace behavior:

Keep your sights focused on the job.
Set a goal: While you're at work, you will be the best professional you can in your job. Make it your top priority to ensure your own work is completed effectively, every single day.

At times, you may see your friend struggle with work, get involved in conflicts, or even be accused of some form of misbehavior. While it can be tempting to step in and help your friend, think about the professional context in which you do this. For instance, if a friend struggles with a work task, ask your manager if you can mentor your friend. Then, provide guidance, but don't try to do your friend's work for them.

By focusing on your professional performance first, you protect your own career and set an example. You position yourself to provide friendly support, so your friend can learn to thrive on the job as well.

Clearly communicate your own boundaries.
While many workplaces have someone who "overshares," tells off-color jokes or simply talks too much, it's easier for these behaviors to develop within a workplace friendship because friendships make people more comfortable with one another.

To keep workplace talk professional, be clear about your boundaries. If you don't want to discuss a particular topic at work, say so. Use tools like "do not disturb" signs to remind everyone, including your friend, that you're working on an important task and need to concentrate.

Insist on inclusion.
Fight the appearance of favoritism or "in-group" dynamics by making it a point to consult, chat with or include other colleagues in projects, even when you and a friend are working on them together. By doing so, you demonstrate the friendship isn't warping your opinion of your co-workers; instead, you're still putting everyone's professional input first when you're on the job.

If you're put in the position of evaluating colleagues or giving an opinion on their work, ask for an objective set of standards to use in your evaluation. If you feel you can't give an honest opinion about anyone's work (not just a friend's), be honest with the manager requesting the evaluation and ask for help resolving the situation.

Review and follow HR policies.
If your organization has a "no fraternization" policy that places limits on how co-workers (or workers and supervisors) may communicate or spend time together outside of work, make sure you understand the company's pre-existing boundaries. The policy can give you ammunition if you have trouble enforcing your own boundaries -- or if you need to counsel an employee on how to handle a friendship-related work issue. "The company says so" may be an easier way to say "no" than "because I said so," especially if a friend doesn't understand why you're suddenly saying "no" to inside jokes or cat memes at work.

Boundaries improve the quality of your -- and everyone else's -- work. Properly established and maintained, boundaries can also improve the quality of your workplace friendships. A mindful approach to relationship building can benefit everyone.