Workplace Friendships: Can Men and Women be Friends?
“My heart's for my family, Joe; my brains and my balls are for business, and this is business. You got me?” - Cinderella Man
A recent invitation to connect on LinkedIn has me thinking about workplace friendship. The invitation was from a former colleague with whom I don’t recall having a particularly strong connection. I understand, as with Twitter and Facebook, some individuals are more interested in the number count rather than the quality of the relationship. As I said, it got me thinking about workplace friendships, and how being a woman, I sometimes felt robbed of the opportunity to develop genuine friendships with my colleagues. Particularly when they are of the opposite sex.
Before we go further, I must be clear that this article is not about navigating office romance. I drew a clear line on that one, and I choose not to cross it.
I am talking about a genuine desire for friendship with someone whom you have shared values, and who happens to be a work colleague. Do you agree that true barriers exist if the two of you are the opposite sex?
For instance, when you are a man, you never have to take the following things into consideration when you befriend another man. But as a woman, I am forced to ask them all the time.
Should we even go to lunch when it is only the two of us? Will our colleagues view it as inappropriate?
Will his significant other have concerns about us spending time together at afterwork functions? Even if you conduct yourself in the most exemplary manner - respectful, neutral, professional - you still risk creating the wrong perception. I don’t invite nor accept invitations from a male colleague to an afterhour function unless we are in a big group. Single men do not have this concern and can form deep friendships with their male colleagues and benefit from mentorship with their senior leaders.
Should I always have my office door open when we converse?
Am I dressing appropriately? I dress to show competence and not for my mood or personality as I do off work. So I lean toward conservatism. Even then, I always wondered if what I was wearing might be misconstrued. This is a non-issue for men.
Right now, some of you might be saying, why bother? Make friends elsewhere. This would be the safest, and in some cases, the wisest course to take. In some ways, the workplace is an unlikely place to form friendships because of its inherent competition, fear of legalities (workplace harassment), and in the case where one party is in a senior position and the other a subordinate, the perception of fairness.
This makes me think of a line from Cinderella Man where one of the characters proclaimed, “My heart's for my family, Joe; my brains and my balls are for business, and this is business. You got me?”
Through the majority of my career, I may not have thought along these lines but I did heavily compartmentalized.
Workplace Friendship – More Pros than Cons
Then somewhere along my career continuum, I have come to see that the complete separation of work and personal life is not realistic. You can’t get in your car each morning, shed your humanity, bleached out your personality, and robotically interact with others solely on data and output.
Secondly, when you keep a professional distance, you may be viewed as competent and professional but it is a rare thing for people to trust an unknown commodity. I find it considerably difficult to establish any real and significant level of trust unless I know someone.
Thirdly, keeping a professional distance prevents you from learning of significant developments in your company early on. For instance, if you are just learning about a possible merger from the local press or a formal company announcement, and your co-workers confessed to knowing about it months ago from an informal grapevine, you are clearly out of the loop.
As for me, I am more motivated and productive if I work alongside people whom I have shared values, admire and respect. And if I think of them as friends, I certainly don’t want to let my friends down so I work harder, and I have their backs.
In other words, there are clear benefits to workplace friendships such as deepening trust, building support and engagement at work. Studies cited that employees who formed friendships at work “tend to be more focused, more passionate, and more loyal to their organizations. They get sick less often, suffer fewer accidents, and change jobs less frequently.”
The article also offered up this revelatory statement:
“The irony is that close relationships are often built upon a foundation of shared risk. It's when we reveal our vulnerability that we acquire new friends.”
So how do you eliminate some of the risks?
The Do’s and Don’ts
1. Set Clear Boundaries.
One male blogger takes a definite stance on not eating or traveling alone with people of the opposite sex. You decide how stringent you want to be but the bottom line here is to draw the line.
2. Limit the Water Cooler Chat.
Don’t let your productivity slide. Your focus is work. You are there to be an effective problem solver and a strong contributor to your employer.
3. Don’t Make the Evening News. Think in terms of monitor and control. Ask yourself the following question, and you won’t go wrong: “If this were to appear on the evening news, would my words and actions embarrass me?” If you think you will peak the interest of TMZ, don’t do it!
For other solid guidelines, this article is worth a read.
To receive my future articles directly to your inbox, subscribe here.