5 Ways Smart People Navigate Work Friendships

coworkers eating lunch at work and laughing

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Corinne Kalupson62
Events pro, writer, mom, chaser of dreams.

Prospective friendships can crop up anywhere! It stands to reason that at some point you’ll become friendly with your coworkers. You likely spend much of your time at work, during which you’re surrounded by colleagues who are probably a lot like you. Navigating the waters of what’s appropriate and where to draw the line can be confusing. How should a smart, friendly, career-minded person best keep those professional relationships in check?

Can a colleague become a friend?

Sure they can! Managers know that collaboration isn’t just a buzzword: it’s a concept by which teams strive to work harder and smarter towards a common goal. By increasing the number of team-building activities and the use of coworking spaces, employers are encouraging their team members to create closer, more personal relationships — friendships! — with their colleagues. The days of hiding in a cubicle and chatting at the water cooler are few and far between. As an added bonus, making friends at work means you’ll inevitably be happier and more engaged when you arrive each morning. The real question, then, is not whether a colleague can be a friend but to what degree they should be. There are coworkers with whom you are friendly and then there are those who actually become your close friends. Each is valuable in their unique way.

Why are work friends different from personal friends?

They’re different in the way college friends and childhood friends and mom friends are different from each other. Shared experiences give you an initial place to connect and allow the relationship to evolve. That the experiences vary from friend to friend means you’ll be able to share different sides of your fantastic personality with different people. In any burgeoning friendship, as you dig deeper, you can find all kinds of interesting crossovers: your physical therapist shares your obsession with food trucks; a colleague has the same affinity for 90s grunge music as you; your child’s teacher attends boot camp at your gym. Those common threads make the world seem smaller and less isolating. That you’re essentially forced to spend time with your coworkers each day means that to find commonality and become friendly with them may be a means of emotional survival. After all, who wants to eat lunch alone at their desk every day?

Draw a line.

Once you’ve taken those first steps, drawing a clear line between work and personal life is crucial, no matter what the degree of your friendship. Think about it: your friends outside of work don’t necessarily want to hear about the challenging project your team is tackling or the ups and downs of a frustrating coworker. They can’t compare notes on this year’s bonus structure or the new marketing campaign you’re pitching. But since they're your friends, first, they’ll listen to you vent before redirecting you. Similarly, your work friends don’t want to hear the deep and dirty details of a delicate medical issue or your problems with money. There are topics that are simply not appropriate for professional friendships, no matter how close. Your coworkers are professionals first, then friends. 

Switching modes is not always possible.

Of course, when you’re at work, you can’t turn off your personality or close the door completely on your private life. All of those experiences make you who you are. Sometimes, you do need a trusted confidant in the office with whom you can share both business and some level of personal information: you may be temporarily distracted because you’ve had a disagreement with your partner or you’re excited about a sibling’s engagement. On Friday at 5 pm, you may want to run out for happy hour to celebrate a professional victory or blow off steam from a difficult week. In those situations, a professional friendship comes in handy. Select that person carefully and test the waters before dumping your entire personal life onto the table.

From a career development standpoint, it’s also great to have a wingman with whom to attend networking events and days-long conferences. Activities that could run the risk of becoming tedious are more interesting and ultimately more effective when you have a partner in crime with whom to share them.  

How do you keep business and friendship separate?


Keep the two sides of the relationship crystal clear. If you go on a conference road trip with your colleague, don’t spend the next day reminiscing about the after-party. If you’re having a purely social dinner with your colleague, be careful how much you complain about the boss or other members of the team.


You’re a different person at work from who you are when you’re out having a good time. Keep it that way. Inside jokes are exclusionary and definitely don’t belong at work; a heated workday disagreement should stay there and not overflow into a planned happy hour with your professional friend. One should not color the other.

Use your words and lay it on the line. 

Acknowledge that being friends in the workplace may become awkward at times but that you’re committed to each of you succeeding as both friends and coworkers. Talk about it if exchanges suddenly feel uncomfortable and don’t allow the friendship to become a conflict of interest.

Hold yourself accountable. 

Lead by example and occasionally check your own attitude. While at work, always conduct yourself in a way that prevents anyone from accusing you of being distracted or playing favorites. 

Use good judgement and don’t take advantage of the situation. 

Never ask your work friend to cover for you or expect them to make unrealistic accommodations for you. There are certain lines in any friendship that you should never cross. 

Remember that adult friendships of all kinds require care and attention, whether you make them in the office, at a networking event or at a neighborhood potluck. Find your tribe — or the members of your different tribes — and cultivate those relationships.

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