There’s a dark side to friendships at work

Someone always feels left out.
Someone always feels left out.
Image: Reuters/Steve Marcus
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If you follow the popular online advice column “Ask a Manager,” you’re familiar with a few of the ways friendships at work can get hairy.

“I’ve been covering for a friend’s work mistakes,” one reader complained recently. Another described her pal as an awful coworker, angry all the time and running a private labor strike. “She’s my friend and I feel terrible about this, but it’s incredibly frustrating,” she confesses. And, yikes: “The friend who I recommended for a job in my office is secretly job-searching after just a few months.”

Julianna Pillemer, a doctoral candidate at the Wharton School of Management, noticed a few years ago that, pervasive as it seems to be, this genre of workplace crises was little-covered by scholarly research. Together with Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, she addresses that gap in a new paper, “Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship,” just published in the Academy of Management Review.

To be sure, the authors do not seek to disparage or discourage connections around the office. They’re aware that having a friend or two at your workplace can make any job more enjoyable or even just more bearable, patching over the moments of existential angst or routine stress with inside jokes and shared coffee runs. “It’s hard to be in a place where you don’t feel that closeness, because you spend a lot of time at work,” Rothbard says.

Employers, too, are often eager to see bonds develop. Research has shown that people who are comfortable enough to be authentic with each other feel safer floating creative ideas and get more done.

Still, there are reasons you can’t go about lunching and dishing at work with abandon, the way you might with non-work connections. The paper from Wharton proposes a framework for organizing and understanding those reasons, pulling together past research across several disciplines into a coherent theory.

Friends and colleagues want, and need, different things from each other

First, the authors define four “core features” of friendships and collegial ties that are inherently at odds, instantly illuminating the crux of so many issues:

  • Friendships are voluntary; much like families, however, you don’t choose your colleagues
  • Friends relate to each other informally; at work, roles and power dynamics are formalized and can be rigid
  • Friends pal around to meet emotional goals such as connection and wellbeing; people who share the same employer share “instrumental goals,” i.e., they have to do their jobs
  • Among friends, what’s yours is mine and there’s no scorekeeping; workplace relationships are mostly transactional

Given these fundamental differences, it’s easy to see where the landmines lay. Your work friend might be seeking reassurance about a project’s value, or expect some support on a proposal they’ve put forth. But what if you disagree with their vision, or understand why their recent performance needs a tough critique? What if it’s a Monday and you don’t have time to parse your work friend’s marital problems, but you can see how badly she needs to chat and maybe cry a little, or grab a stiff drink, right now?

One problem, says Rothbard, is that when you’re deeply involved in a workplace friendship, it can be emotionally taxing and distracting to handle at the office, especially when interpersonal conflict arises. (Arise it will, too: research has found that friends having falling-outs once every 7.2 months on average). When situations between friends at the office are too intense, a person may even consider leaving their job just to salvage the relationship, or their career, or both, the authors note.

Beautiful friendships at work can harden into ugly cliques

Unfortunately, it’s not only interpersonal situations that can get messy when friendship rears its well-meaning head in the workplace.

When office friendships become entrenched, they can recreate the cliquey atmosphere of a high school cafeteria, the authors write—friends who visibly flock together isolate those looking in. That’s going to be painful to others in the office, to various degrees, and could negatively affect the outsiders’ sense of status and competence, even if that reaction is irrational, says Rothbard. It also could prompt someone “to act out with behaviors that reinforce those beliefs,” she says, which is not only unfortunate, but potentially damaging to the organization’s bottom line. When cliques form, Rothbard tells Quartz At Work, “People may feel that the systems are not just.”

The happy colleagues inside a clique may be oblivious to their impact, says Rothbard, which is why she advises being “hyper-vigilant” about your own  friendships or friend circles at work, and being purposeful about branching out to spend time with others, including those whose company you don’t happen to enjoy as much. That’s even more true if you’re in a position of seniority, she says, in which case you need to institutionalize processes that ensure fairness. (“You also need to make sure that you’re not actually biased,” she adds.)

Tight-knit friends can also make poorer group decisions, if they’re on a work team or dominate one, for instance. That’s because we’re naturally drawn to people who remind us of ourselves, so our group-wide deliberations involving our closest work friends will almost certainly lack diverse views and rigorous debate. Also, the crew might be all about its own emotional wants, not the company’s needs. Last, the dreaded cliques create silos, say the Wharton authors, meaning not only gossip, but actual work-related knowledge, may not travel as freely across the rest of the workforce.

Social media makes it all public, for better and worse

Co-workers are often connected now on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites, which can further threaten bonds between employees, the authors find. “Certainly I’ve experienced—and I’m sure others have experienced—[thinking,] “Oh, these co-workers went and hung out without me. You might not have even seen that clique in person in the office,” Pillemar says in a Wharton video about the paper.

There’s also the risk that your disclosures on social media may be more candid and forceful than the “you” you present at work—the one who caters to office norms. That dissonance, the paper suggests, can amuse or confuse your work colleagues at best, or lead to distancing or conflict at worst.

But there also are ways in which social media can enhance bonds between colleagues. If Facebook allows you to see that a co-worker is going through an illness in the family, maybe you’re going to give them a break, Rothbard says in the same Wharton interview, arguing, “You have more understanding of what’s going on in their life.”

What’s work between friends?

How we experience workplace camaraderie, whether IRL or online, can be colored by factors like age, maturity level, gender, race, and level of seniority, along with the overall work environment. Considering this, the authors point to several potential questions for further research. Are women, who are said to be socialized specifically to value friendships, better or worse than men at navigating workplace relationships? What does all of this look like in a communal society versus an individualistic one? And what can or should a manager do to keep friendship-related hazards out of the workplace?

(Rothbard has some suggestions for that last question: When possible, place people from different parts of the company on teams together, breaking up the tendency for people to clump together out of habit, and plan mixers like cross-functional lunches, she suggests in the Wharton video.)

Friends: they’re just like us

There’s one other pitfall to look out for when developing friendships at work. If you’re drawn to people who are like you, you could end up competing for the same assignments, promotions, and resources.

But truly close friends can usually survive that type of stress test. Psychologists say that when a friendship is deep and vital, identities merge, muting competitiveness, the authors report. “There is an “inverted U-shaped” relationship between workplace-friendship closeness and the experience of inter-role conflict,” they write.

So don’t be terrified now that you’ve peered into the dark side of workplace friendships. Just pay attention to how you’re choosing and nurturing those relationships, and as usual, take care to navigate your workplace with consciousness.