Is It Dangerous To Be BFFs With Your Coworkers?

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
As I’m heading into an industry event, I notice Sarah* out of the corner of my eye. Her hair is blond instead of brown, but she’s wearing a familiar, white-and-black striped dress I remember from whenever she was trying to impress. She’s also being buddy-buddy with a major VIP — someone I’d love to meet, whose good word and introduction could seriously enhance my career. But instead of walking over to Sarah, I want to leave before she sees me. So I bolt, my heart simultaneously pounding and sinking as I contemplate the magnitude of the opportunity I just missed.

Sarah and I aren’t locked in some Montague/Capulet style feud. We’re former coworkers. We used to spend countless happy hours dissecting our personal lives. I’d text her the morning after an epic night of barhopping, telling her I was planning to call out “sick.” We covered for each other when we went on job interviews, and we had code names for colleagues, whom we’d chat about on our office IM. She was one of my best friends, someone I talked to daily — even when I ended up moving to a new company.

But then, we had a fight. The reasons are boring: I was jealous that she was in a relationship and I wasn’t, I felt neglected when she cancelled on plans, and I angrily lashed out. We deleted each other as Facebook friends and stopped following each other on Instagram. I would have never thought about her again, except for the fact that her name kept coming up. She and I both work in the relatively small-feeling media industry in Manhattan. And while I know that it would likely be fine if our paths crossed in a professional capacity, I wouldn’t feel comfortable reaching out to her for a favor or a reference. As I let potential job opportunities slide when I realize she’d be involved, I kept wondering: If we’d never become best friends, would my career be in a better place than it is now?
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after our falling-out, I didn't feel comfortable reaching out to her for a reference

Recently, the New York Times ran an opinion essay positing that Americans needed to make more friends at the office. The author, Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, cites evidence that inter-office friendship isn’t as valued by Americans as it was four decades ago. In 1976, 54% of Americans said it was very important to find a job where they could make friends — a stat that dropped to 41% in 2006. The article received numerous comments, with people falling into two main camps: Those who want friendship to be essential to workplace culture, and those who believe work is for, well, work.

And as someone who was very much in the former camp throughout my 20s, now I definitely proceed with caution when it comes to making friends at work — and wish, more than anything, my twentysomething self would have done the same.

It wasn’t just the disagreements and fights and burned bridges with Sarah that might have hurt my career. Looking back, I can't help but think that I was too close to certain coworkers, and it might have caused me to miss out on some great opportunities. I thought things were going great when I befriended an assigning editor — we worked well together and had fun hanging out on weekends. But, our friendship prevented me from speaking up when she gave away assignments to other colleagues. What's worse, when she moved onto a new job, I lost my champion. If I had focused my attention on getting to know other managers, the transition after her departure might have been a lot easier. I also feel I tried too hard to make her job as easy as possible, losing focus on how I could expand on my own career.

In both cases, I feel like I got too involved. We all know that workplace friendships are notoriously tricky to navigate. We know that we shouldn’t share everything with a "work wife." We know we shouldn’t ask our coworkers to cover for us when we’re recovering from a night of too many margaritas. And we know we shouldn’t get cliquey with the people who happen to share our cube. I know that — I’ve been reporting on dos and don’ts in the workplace for my entire career. And yet, I broke every rule.

In the early days of my career, it was hard not to become friends with my colleagues when I was surrounded by people with whom I shared a very similar ethos: We were all obsessed with industry gossip, we weren’t afraid to work hard, and we all wanted to be the best. We were also relatively new to the city, anxious to make friends, and wanted sounding boards for how to handle our climb up the career ladder. In short, we were human.

We all know that workplace friendships are notoriously tricky to navigate.

Bottom line: I was over-emotional and over-invested — and I truly do believe it cost me a few opportunities in my career. So this year, when I went back to an office, I resolved to do things differently. The stakes and situation were different: I was unexpectedly pregnant and needed a job, fast. I wanted my colleagues to get to know my work before they knew about my personal life, so I kept my pregnancy under wraps until the beginning of my third trimester, sharing the bare minimum about what I did on weekends and how I spent evenings. That also felt unnatural, and it was a relief when I could finally tell my coworkers what was really going on in my life. Now, having been on both ends of the friends-at-work spectrum, I think I’ve found a happy medium.
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Here’s what works for me now — and advice I wished I followed a decade ago.

1. Know When To Apologize
I sucked it up and sent an email to Sarah telling her I was sorry. I didn’t do it because I wanted a reference. I did it because I was done cringing when her name came up in conversation. Will we be BFFs again? No. But I feel a lot better.

2. Keep Secrets
It’s tough, but I don’t talk details about what my professional plans are to people who work in the same industry as me. I’ll talk generalities, but keeping tight-lipped on details not only ensures that no gossip is leaked, but it forces you to talk about other stuff — family, pets, weekend plans, whatever — that ensure your relationship will last beyond the job. Also, beware the “fishing expedition” — when a coworker invites you out to drinks under the guise of hanging out, but is really pumping for information about your salary/review/whatever.

3. Don’t Let Friendships Get In the Way Of Your Work Goals
I thought that if I was best friends with certain assigning editors, I’d get the best jobs. This wasn’t the case. Turns out, I was so busy trying to please them that my own priorities took second place. Now, even when I’m friendly with colleagues, whether they are supervisors or direct reports, I make sure to keep work the focus.

4. Go To The Birthday Parties
You want to hang out with the people you work with — after all, you see them more hours per week than pretty much anyone else in your life, and studies have even shown that having work friends fuels productivity and engagement at the office. But don’t be the one who ends up crashing at their place. Have a drink or two; then, go home — and save those late-night romps for the the friends you don’t get paid to hang out with.

5. Pull Back
Find yourself getting annoyed when a work friend blows you off? You’re right to be pissed, but it's far better to take a step back and let the friendship cool off than confront her.

I wish I had seen coworkers more as casual connections and less as best-friend material. I would have kept the best parts — the inside jokes, the happy hours, the gossipy coffee runs — minus the repercussions if something went wrong. I’m happy to have finally found a balance that keeps my work life fun and drama-free. I just wish I had found it earlier — it would have made a decade of industry events much less stressful.

*Name has been changed.
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