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The right way to build friendships at work

About the author

Alina Dizik is a freelance journalist who covers consumer trends, careers, lifestyle and small business for national publications. Her work appears in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Men's Journal and BBC.

(ThinkStock)

(ThinkStock)

Building friendships at the office?

Most people know salary discussions are off limits with colleagues, but there are plenty of other things to consider when making friends at work. It’s worth the effort to get it right. Maintaining friends in a high-pressure professional environment can help you get ahead, say career experts.

Having friends at the office “improves not only your mood and outlook at work, but also your performance,” said Deanna Geddes, chair of the department of Human Resource Management at Temple University in Philadelphia.

In today’s open office space culture, building relationships is more complicated than it was when cubicles and offices gave workers more privacy.

For one, experts say most people should avoid turning work friendships into truly personal ones. If you do, set clear boundaries to keep your professional relationships uncomplicated.

Nicknames, hugs and humour

We spend between one-third and half of our waking hours at the office each week so it’s inevitable that some workmates become friends outside the office.

It’s important to focus on appropriate decorum, said Dana Ardi author of The Fall of the Alphas: the New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence — and Lead in New York.

For example, colleagues may be uncomfortable if you use nicknames or hugs at work, even if you use them outside work with the same people, Ardi said.

“There are times when you socialise with an intimacy that doesn’t belong,” she said. “With each friendship you sort of need to compartmentalise.”

How, exactly, people maintain work friendships varies geographically, Geddes said. In parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, including Japan, Russia and India, employees are expected to spend time with their superiors outside of work in a light hearted and friendly way, while keeping up in-office professionalism. “There’s sense of obligation that goes beyond the normal workplace,” she said.

But subordinates who become comfortable enough to joke with their boss may be thought of as arrogant. In parts of the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, many workers are expatriates who spend time with their professional connections outside of work, making it difficult to keep relationships strictly professional.

Strategic sharing

Even if you don’t maintain a friendship with workmates outside the office, it’s important to consider how much you share.

For some people, work is work and personal is personal. Work friends don’t get a glimpse of junior’s latest athletic accomplishments or hear about the family trip to the seashore. But for many others, personal details dot conversations with work friends. The key is to share just enough about your outside interests to give a glimpse of your personality, and not more.

For graphic designer Rishelle Notghi, personal matters fall into “in a gray area” at work — she isn’t against sharing them but examines each topic case-by-case before she does so. As a general rule, “I don’t bring up anything that I’d be embarrassed if others heard,” said Notghi who works in Stamford, Connecticut.

Experts agree. It can be important to share some personal details in order to nurture a work friendship, Geddes explained. Sharing information about your life, such as upcoming weekend plans, without revealing too much is a good way to keep a balance. Not acceptable: problems at home, your family financial situation and most health issues.

“You need to be sensitive that you don’t appear to be bragging,” Geddes said. Keep in mind that what you consider okay could be sensitive to someone else — and that could become a problem at the office. A jealous work friend, for instance, may be less willing to put in a good word for you or help out on a project.

Try to keep separate rules of sharing for weekend gatherings with colleagues. When Stacia Pierce, an Orlando, Florida-based corporate coach spends leisure time with employees whom she also considers friends, she tries to keep chatter light and avoids workplace topics. Keeping that social boundary on the weekends helps her employees realise that she’s off the clock, she said. Drawing a clearer line between social and professional conversation allows for a more formal relationship once back in the office, she added.

And you should always be cautious when talking about other colleagues. Sharing negative information — such as gossiping about colleague’s poor performance or personal problems — can make you seem less trustworthy or put you in an awkward situation if you move to another group or get promoted.

Hashing out conflict

Ironing out conflicts with work friends is more difficult than with personal friends. Most people make the mistake of assuming that work friends can help easily sort through conflict, but it’s the opposite, said Geddes. “We often have different allowances for emotional expression in the office,” she said.

Sagar Sheth, a Chicago-based investment banker learned that the hard way. Months after befriending a now former colleague, he learned that the person was speaking badly about his performance to bosses. Because the person knew personal information about Sheth helped, what he said was more convincing and harder to overcome, Sheth said.

“In many ways, you have to be much more strategic about choosing friends inside the office versus outside the office,” Sheth said who now shares fewer personal details with the colleagues.

When a conflict arises, pick up the phone to discuss with your work friend, rather than using email, Geddes suggested. But even that can be awkward if there’s been a behind-the-back controversy.

For Sheth, the professional barrier has made it tougher to speak up and hash things out. “Professionalism and formality could actually make the disagreement seem worse than it is,” he said.