When Miranda Smith*, 30, started her job as a senior advisor in government consulting, she immediately surveyed her new team. More specifically, she started searching for another person who looked like her.
“As a Black woman, I always look for another person of colour,” Smith explains. “It’s such a relief knowing there’s someone else in the workplace like me.”
For many professionals, entering a new workplace brings with it a desire to connect with colleagues. Sometimes, these connections can unfold on a superficial level, restricted by the structured confines of the forty-hour workweek. But other times, these relationships can root themselves deeply and eventually expand well outside of the office.
Indeed, real workplace friendships are not only likely, they are common. After all, when spending some 40 hours each week surrounded by the same people, substantial friendships are a strong possibility.
“I found my past work ally by working directly with her every day,” says Tionna Graham, 27, who works as a desktop support technician in the IT industry. Graham and her confidant were both the same age and interested in many of the same activities, therefore relating in many ways. “She invited me to the bar with her friends one day and told me a secret, [which] I kept it. Later on, I told her a secret and she kept it, [too]. We’ve been friends since.”
She invited me to the bar with her friends one day and told me a secret, which I kept it. Later on, I told her a secret and she kept it, too. We’ve been friends since.”
Lindsey Pollak, multigenerational workplace expert and author of the forthcoming book, The Remix, says that having a workplace confidant who can serve as a supporter or sounding board can be critical for growth, at any juncture of one's career. “Sometimes you just need someone to listen so that you can vent when you’re frustrated or happy,” Pollak says. “Sometimes you need someone who is good at giving advice or who can give you tough love.”
Pollak cautions that a confidant may not always be just one person. Sometimes, it's necessary to have multiple people who can provide support in certain scenarios. Diversity, Pollak says, is critical. Having a number of confidants of different backgrounds, generations, seniority levels, and genders can be incredibly important."To thrive today you have to be able to understand a variety of perspectives," Pollak adds.
Graham says that, in addition to making her experiences at work more fun, her previous confidant also bolstered her growth at work since she was able to perform Graham’s duties and covered for her if needed (and vice versa). Like Graham, Smith’s experiences with her workplace confidant, Shelly*, have in many ways allowed her to thrive at work as a woman of colour, particularly in the face of racial and gendered microaggressions.
“As a woman of colour, having a workplace ally of colour has honestly made my job [one] that I love,” Smith says. “No one can relate to the things you experience as a woman of colouur. Especially when, [for example], an older white man ask if your braids are fake in front of meeting attendees.”
No one can relate to the things you experience as a woman of colour. Especially when, for example, an older white man ask if your braids are fake in front of meeting attendees.
Recently, discussions of "onlyness" — that is, the phenomenon of being the only one of a certain identity, whether gender, race, or sexuality in the office — has become increasingly relevant. In fact, according to the Women "Women in the Workplace" report from McKinsey & Company and Lean In, one in five women report they are often the only woman, or one of few women, in their place of work. For women of colour, experiences of onlyness tend to be particularly pronounced and, sometimes, having a confidant can make all the difference.
According to Pollak, having someone you can trust — especially as an "only" — is tremendously important. After all, Pollak says, sometimes you need someone who can validate and normalize your experiences, providing a reality check that what you're thinking and feeling. “It’s an uncomfortable and exhausting position to be an only,” Pollak adds. “Having someone who understands your perspective is really important.”
Like Smith, Fabiana Meléndez, a 23-year-old working in public relations, has always had a workplace ally. These alliances, Meléndez says, tend to develop naturally — usually through commonalities, such as having similar roles, outside interests, or struggles. “When I have been at jobs that have been less than great, these friendships help us both vent and determine what we don't like and how to proceed,” Meléndez explains. “At places where I have enjoyed working, we usually vent about smaller issues such as difficult clients or weird deadlines.”
Regardless of how they evolve, Meléndez says her workplace confidants have had a positive impact on her mental health, giving her an outlet to vent about work to someone who knows the specific politics and dynamics of the office. Access to such resources has been pivotal — especially in times of internal company conflict. “Having someone to talk to who saw what was going on helped validate my experiences and realize that it wasn't just me,” Meléndez adds. “They were a great resource for advice on dealing with tough professional situations.”
Having someone to talk to who saw what was going on helped validate my experiences and realize that it wasn't just me.
Still, not everyone is as open as Meléndez. Though Graham’s last workplace confidant made a difference in her experience, she does not currently have one at her current job and doesn’t feel she would be able to easily trust another coworker in the same way, particularly with sensitive information that could jeopardize her job.
“I’m very private about my life at work,” Graham explains. “These people aren’t my friends or don’t have my best interest at heart. I’m not saying they wouldn’t want me to do well but I would not trust them with information that could hurt me in a long run.”
Ultimately, no matter how you feel about the necessity — or lack thereof — of having workplace confidants, it's a lifeline for so many in the workplace. For women, particularly women of colour, having an ally who is trustworthy and supportive can make all the difference. And, as these women have demonstrated, these alliances hold a powerful potential to transform even the most toxic or unfulfilling work environments into opportunities for solidarity and even lifelong friendship.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had this close of a relationship with someone in the workplace. We’ve shed tears in private together, I helped her receive a $30,000 raise, and we’re traveling [abroad] together next month. She has my back, just as I always have hers," Smith concludes. And one extra perk: “It makes coming into work every day so easy.”
*Name has been changed.