Should co-workers be friends?

Steve Williamson, Dir. Product Development, eRep, Inc.
Monday, May 16, 2022
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Should co-workers be friends?

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Tags: #workplace #culture #relationships

Let's start with a question about workplace relationships:

Would you rather get along great with your co-workers who are only mediocre at their job, or have polite but non-social co-workers who are occupational rock stars?

A common theme in hiring nowadays is workplace culture. No one disagrees that a positive culture is valuable, but it's not always sunshine and roses. In the worst cases, culture and cultural fit become euphemisms for selective hiring or outright discrimination.

How do you get a positive work culture? Many talent management pundits espouse the belief that culture should be clearly defined and deliberately shaped. Still others (including this author) feel it should grow organically.

There doesn't seem to be any doubt that a healthy workplace culture is a good thing to have. Should that healthy culture be comprised of friendships and off-campus socialization between co-workers? What if that socialization is a requirement?

Ever Play Golf to Get a Promotion?

Being friends or social after hours with your co-workers shouldn't be a requirement in the workplace. In some places it's an implied requirement and those who choose not to participate in off-campus social activities are implicitly or even overtly shunned. At best, you may find yourself on the short end of promotions and pay raises while your more enthusiastically social co-workers move on up the ladder.

Should you have to play golf with the boss (and let them win) in order to get a promotion?

There is a common attitude that a highly social work crew is like family. The implication, however, is that you have to act like family to fit in. Is this healthy? For many, that familial bond can be one of the biggest benefits of their job. For others it can be a nightmare.

There are neurodiverse individuals who don't naturally socialize well. Others are capable of socializing but find it to be uncomfortable and draining (introverts unite!) Still others are friendly but prefer to keep their work and private lives separate.

There are three key points to consider with workplace friendships and after hours socialization: 1) it's not inherently harmful, 2) it's no guarantee that such relationships and activities will automatically make the work itself more productive or enjoyable (it may have no tangible impact at all), and 3) such an environment and attitude are not appropriate for everyone.

The Bigger Picture of Culture

The idea of personal socialization with co-workers brings into focus the idea of company culture in general. Should that culture cover areas outside of the workplace both in location and time? Is it appropriate or beneficial for a culture to implicitly shape or even demand behavior of any stripe?

The possible negative effects of company culture can raise its head even before a hire has been made.

Does your job listing tout the family atmosphere and attitudes of your team? If so, you are implicitly stating that any new hires should fit into that behavioral norm to succeed within your organization even if that is not your intention.

There is a downside to this implied attitude. You may turn off highly qualified candidates that would otherwise do an outstanding job in their role, but choose not to apply because they are introverts or wish to keep their work and personal lives separate. They might be neurodiverse and just can't thrive on teams with social demands unrelated to their job.

Recently there was a court case where a worker had a panic attack over an unwanted birthday party at work. The employee asked that a party not be held but the company hosted the party anyway. The employee had a panic attack as a result and was then criticized and subsequently terminated over their coping behavior. The company was found liable and had to pay a $450,000 settlement over it.1

How much value does an organization put on culture that they will ignore an employee's request to skip a social engagement that has nothing to do with their job?

The Value of Work Friends

It is important to clearly state that having social relationships with co-workers can be a very healthy and enriching thing. The friendships that can develop between peers at the office or job site can last decades. However, it is the requirement or even implied insistence that these social interactions should occur that creates problems. They aren't for everyone and there should never be an obligation or even an assumption that participation in non-work related activities should occur.



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Steve Williamson

Steve Williamson

Innovator/Banker - Dir. Product Development, eRep, Inc.

Steve has a career in information technology, software development, and project management spanning three decades. He is the author of a series of fantasy novels called The Taesian Chronicles (, and when he isn't writing he is an aspiring multi-instrumentalist and composer, a virtual pilot in a home-built flight simulator, and a cyclist.

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