Friendship at Work - Oxymoron or Oxygenius?

Should you make friends at work - a philosophical minefield.

Is it possible to find a friend in the cold corridors of a faceless corporation? Yes. Of course it is. What a stupid question.

But since we spend way too much at work it seemed like a good idea to take a look at the way human relationships unfold in the corporate world. I mean, who the hell are these people we cohabit the ruins of Western Civilization with 40+ hours a week? What kind of relations do we build with them?

Work Friendships - The Genesis

For many work is their primary social setting because of the amount of time we spend there. We are thrust together into an environment with people we may never otherwise call friends. But since we are social beings, and because this environment naturally binds us together, it can actually be easier to make friends at work than outside of work.

You know the drill. The computer is super slow today, so you turn to Katie in the cubicle over and tell her that the computer is slower than the women's rights movement. She smiles and vehemently agrees with you. Together, you start to complain about other things, including a lack of decent pens, the broken office furniture, inadequately low employee fridge temperature, your  boss's dickishness, and other departments, which are always full of slower, dumber and lazier people than you, for whose mistakes you always end up paying.

Before you know it you and Katie are friends bound together by your day-to-day work. Soon, Jim joins in after perfectly articulating everyone's rabid hatred of occasionally working on Saturdays. Ella earns her membership by making a quick-witted crack about the CEO's bad leadership. Soon, you all start to disclose details about your personal lives. You meet up for drinks after work. You are best buds forever.

Or are you?

Tensions Within

Friendships built around work can be harder to maintain than ones forged with people who share similar interests and passions. A bond over a broken fax machine is weaker than one over a passion for fine wines, spelunking, or robbing banks.

What binds employees first is their work. Once that's removed, the mutual complaining and making fun of the system, these friendships can become strained if there's nothing more permanent to sustain them. In other words, friendships based on work tend to last as long as the work does, unless they can be bolstered by something else, like good looks, great personality, natural wit, and disarming charm. But, more importantly, work friendships can be affected by the peculiarities specific to the corporate world itself.

For instance, imagine your buddy Katie moves to one of the departments about which you used to complain. Her goals are now slightly at odds with yours, and you may be dependent on her to get your job done. Suddenly, though you still like her, you complain about her a little bit. She complains about you a little bit. You go out for a beer with Ella and Jim, and find her sipping a cocktail with Stella and Joe. You used to joke about Stella and Joe! And now she's one of them. And you suspect she makes more than you.

Then Jim suddenly disappears. You are told he is on a "leave of absence," from which he never returns. You text him and find out he's been fired for taking too many smoke breaks. You chat a little bit, but that soon fades as well.

Finally, you get promoted for something incredible that you've done and now you oversee Ella. You no longer go out for beers - you go to your boss's house for a cocktail party. And for some reason, Ella doesn't seem to be particularly happy for you, especially when you correct a memo she submitted to you. She regrets telling you about the secret online shopping she does at work, and you regret telling her you have a medical marijuana card. The times and secrets you shared are never mentioned again.

The Hazards of a Work Friendship

It goes without saying that work friendships can cause problems. Since we all sublimate our behavior to put on a work persona, extending your work friendships beyond work can have questionable consequences. For instance, what if your idea of fun is smoking some angel dust, shoving a handful of cow manure into a brown paper bag and lighting it on fire underneath a cop car? Everything's in good fun until someone comes over to work hungover, covered in cowshit, gets in trouble and rats you out to someone else. Can you afford to get close?

I guess the real question should be: do you have a Facebook account? While I will explore the notion of privacy in the workplace in another entry, it is worth noting that when your private and work lives clash the results may be hard to control.

Ultimately though, getting obsessive about this type of reasoning is dumb. A perfect example of this sort of thinking is this article on CNN.com entitled "Are Your Friends at Work Hurting Your Career?" People who think like that (or write articles like that) make bad friends in general.

In Defense of Work Friendships

While the expression "It's not personal, it's just business," gets tossed around the corporate world like a used, leaky condom to justify all sorts of unfriendly behavior, it doesn't make it true. It's like explaining a break up by saying "It's not you, it's me." Well, it is you as well, it isn't just business, and in the end it all hurts all the same.

After all, we're social beings, and "just business" doesn't come naturally to us, at least at first. The distinction between us as people vs. us as employees is more verbal than real. We are people first, and it's impossible for us to separate the two personas entirely.

This holds true for many bosses and managers. Many want to be liked and respected by their employees, especially since they tend to spend more time with their staff than they do with their co-managers. Also, their work friendships with other managers have the potential to be more lasting because they are generally more committed to their job, and their job life and personal life are more intertwined.

Of course, it is naive to think that business won't supersede personal attachments. That is part of the dehumanizing nature of the corporate world. People get fired, employees screw over their co-workers to get ahead, and bosses blame their mistakes on their employees.

Still, experts argue that workplace friendships raise morale and stave off the dread that attends everyday life in the corporation. And, ironically, work friendships are strongest when they're not based solely around work. So, with practice, you have to learn to navigate the tensions between the business and the personal. Here are some interesting tips from the experts at askmen.com. These men got some good ideas.

In the end, it's always a good impulse to make the work environment a little more human.

Having a few "work friends" is better than not having friends at all.


  1. What seems like a contradiction in terms is a contribution to a new genre of finance for people who love life and hate work.

  2. And boy are there plenty of them.