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When Friendships and Work Clash

These things tend to be funnier on vintage TV. In one particular episode of the classic I Love Lucy television show, for example, Lucy and her best friend, Ethel, were scheduled to sing a duet. Each bought the same evening gown to wear while performing. When they discovered the duplication, they argued over who could keep the gown. A compromise was reached when both agreed to return the gowns. Then, the night of the performance, they came on stage—yes—wearing the gowns. They ripped decorations off each other's gown while singing Cole Porter’s "Friendship."

Of course, it's not so amusing when real friendships go awry, especially when the friends are coworkers. It can lead to hurt feelings that spill over into the workplace. Or, when personal friends try too hard to maintain their relationships in the workplace, it can lead to conflicts of interest or other problems.

The study of friends in the workplace is a relatively new subject. Some of it comes from two lecturers in management at the University of Auckland (New Zealand) Business School: Rachel L. Morrison and Terry Nolan. They note that while workplace friendships are generally thought to be good (as well as inevitable), little is known about the dynamics of "blended" relationships that are both personal and professional (2007, pp. 33–34).

They sent out e-mails to individuals who were chosen by the researchers as well as to members of EmoNet and IOnet. EmoNet is an e-mail network that caters to academics and practitioners in the field of emotions in organizations. IOnet is a list of industrial organization psychologists in New Zealand. Of the 445 responses they received, mostly from individuals in Western countries, 68% were from women. Of that total, 230 responses dealt with this issue: "Please briefly outline how a friendly relationship with someone with whom you work has made your work more difficult" (2007, p. 36).

The difficulties that respondents enumerated fell into two broad categories: "interpersonal tensions caused by friendships" and "effects on work caused by friendship." The first category included "attempts to handle dilemmas, contradictions, obligations and responsibilities associated with maintaining friendships in the workplace." Morrison and Nolan found nine causative factors in this category, including the inability of both sides to be objective while in the workplace. For example, one friend may be reluctant to critique another's work during evaluations (pp. 37–38). "My friend felt unable to be frank with me professionally for fear I might take any criticism personally and it may affect our friendship," one respondent wrote.

Friendships can even lead someone to ignore an action that harms the company. Rasmussen Reports, an independent research firm, and Hudson, a professional staffing firm, polled 2,099 U.S. workers and found that "friendships can cause employees to overlook or not report bad behavior." In fact, only half of those who witnessed illegal or unethical behavior reported it (Armour 2007).

In the other category observed by Morrison and Nolan, respondents talked about the adverse effects friendships have on work. Some of those are obvious–the friend who wants to talk rather than work. Others are less obvious, such as the difficulty of disagreeing with a friend or of remaining neutral during battles: It's easy to want to side with friends when they argue with someone else (p. 37).

There's also the problem of workplace cliques. Craig Silverman (2007) of Canada's Globe and Mail notes that cliques are inevitable because "you can't be good friends with everybody; employees naturally coalesce into smaller groups." Like high-school cliques, work cliques can result in feelings of alienation among those not included. And cliques can ultimately harm their own members. If some members of the clique move to other jobs, for example, the people left behind could end up looking "calculated and insincere" when attempting to forge new friendships.

But this isn't to suggest that companies should try to discourage friendships. "There are disadvantages (to work friendships)," said Tom Rath, the author of Vital Friends: People You Can't Afford to Live Without. "But what we see, time and time again, is when people say they have a best friend at work, they're engaged on the job" (Armour 2007).

Friendships, according to a Gallup study, increase "employee satisfaction by almost 50%." Those with three close friends on the job were "88% more likely to be satisfied with their jobs," according to the same Gallup study, which consisted of more than five million interviews. And, a close friend can help ease on-the-job stress by providing a welcome break from the daily grind (Armour 2007).

There's even a relationship to productivity. A study conducted by the staffing company Accountemps found that, among 150 executives at the 1,000 biggest U.S. companies, 57% said they believe friendships boost productivity, and 63% of 519 employees surveyed at those same organizations agreed. Yet, overall, the perceived positive influence of workplace friendships is still rather lukewarm. Just 2% of the Accountemps executives said friendships have a "'very positive' effect," while 22% of employees agreed (Silverman 2007).

How should employers act on this emerging research on friendships? Some argue that companies should reinforce such relationships. Tom Rath, for example, says companies can do more to foster an environment that encourages and supports the creation of friendships (Armour  2007).

But researchers Morrison and Nolan aren't sure that on-the-job "friendships" are what is needed. They suggest encouraging the creation of a "friendly environment," a small but crucial difference (2007, p. 41). "Whereas [friendship] is important at certain times and for certain individuals," they write, "[a friendly environment] does not require a deep emotional involvement between individuals and may be more beneficial in terms of organizational performance."

Of course, such observations beg the question of how employers can create a friendly work environment where deep, personal friendships never become an issue. The truth is, they probably couldn't even if they wanted to. But employers can stay aware of these relationships and try to ensure that they are, taken as a whole, a positive force for the entire organization.

Documents referenced in this TrendWatcher include the following:

Armour, Stephanie. "Friendship and Work: A Good or Bad Partnership?" USA TODAY, August 1, 2007.

Morrison, Rachel and Terry Nolan. "Too Much of a Good Thing? Difficulties with Workplace Friendships." University of Auckland Business Review, Spring 2007, pp. 32–41.

"Playing Favorites–Romantic or Otherwise–Is a Messy Game in the Workplace." Knowledge@Wharton, August 8, 2007.

Silverman, Craig. "Office Friendships: The Good and Bad." Globe and Mail, August 31, 2007.

"Working Relationships Set the Tone for Job Performance." Knowledge@WPCarey, December 7, 2005.