Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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Some of my best friends are people I met at work or through work. And now that I freelance from home most of the time, I miss the people who got me through a tough day or helped me celebrate when things were going well (although my puppy is certainly a friend, too — I’m just not quite sure he’s listening when I talk). Work friends can be the best part of your day in many cases.

But how do you know if your work friends are actually your real friends? Sure, you confide in them and they in you, but does it extend beyond the office? Here are six signs you’ve taken the friendship to the next level.

Should you make friends at work?

Having friends at work can not only make your job more bearable — dare I say, even fun; they can also help your career. You might find yourself more engaged thanks to these friends. You’ll also have stronger collaborations and be able to boost one another. Sometimes, you might even land jobs or promotions through friends who put in a good word or referral.

There is a downside to having work friends, though. If you’re busy chatting away with your coworkers, you might not be spending as much time actually working as you should. If something goes wrong in the friendship, you could find yourself bringing drama to the office and having trouble working alongside someone with whom you have personal issues (this is also a drawback of dating your coworkers). If one friend is managing another or within the same chain of command, the situation can get sticky and could lead to other teammates accusing you or your boss or playing favorites. And be wary of forming cliques — it will make others’ lives unpleasant. 

What is the difference between a friend and a colleague?

1. You spend time together outside of the 9-5 grind.

If you’re hanging out on weekends or after work hours (and the office itself), this is a clear sign that you’re real friends or at least starting to become real friends. That doesn’t mean attending industry or networking events together, but it does mean inviting each other to your birthday parties and getting brunch on weekends.  But if you haven’t gone beyond grabbing a cup of coffee at the Starbucks downstairs, that doesn’t mean you won’t be true friends — it’s a place to start. Assuming you’d like to take the relationship further, you might ask your colleague to join you for happy hour at a bar near the office.

2. You have each other’s phone numbers (and use them).

Many colleagues exchange phone numbers for work purposes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re friends; it could just mean they need to get ahold of you in case of a work emergency or to track you down at a conference. But if you have each other’s phone numbers and use them for non-work matters, that’s another story. Do you text each other? And are your conversations about something other than the big project you’re collaborating on together? Then you’ve made yourself a real friend from work.

3. You talk about things other than work.

Of course, one of the biggest things many colleagues have in common is their work lives. You may find yourself griping to your cubicle mate about that overly chatty coworker or the boss you both can’t stand. But do you talk about, well, real things? For example, does she know your dog and brother’s name? Has she met your significant other? If you’ve shared personal details with one another and you tell each other about things that are completely unrelated to work, that’s a sign you’ve moved out of a strictly working relationship.

4. You confide in one another.

By the same token, do you tell each other the really real things — meaning she doesn’t just know your significant other’s name, but she’s helped you through fights you’ve had? If you can confide in each other beyond simple work gripes, like your boss dumping a big project in your lap on Friday at 4 pm, then this is a real friend. 

5. You aren’t in competition with each other.

This is a big one. Some friendships can dissolve quickly when someone gets promoted over the other or if you’re constantly comparing yourselves against each other. This is especially true if you’re in the same chain of command (see below). Real friends aren’t trying to outdo one another — they support and uplift each other. 

6. You stay in touch if one of you goes elsewhere.

Many of the friends I had at work are not people I’m still in touch with, although several are. A true test of whether the friendship is a lasting one is if you both continue to put in the effort after one of you leaves the company. Some of my closest former work friends and now real friends left the state (one lives all the way across the country), and while we don’t see each other all that often, we’re still good friends.

When shouldn’t you be friends with someone at work?

There are some people you should avoid being friends with at work, no matter how enticing the idea might seem. They include:

• People within your chain of command who aren’t at your level.

If one of you is senior to the other but not her boss, that’s not a dealbreaker — you can assess whether you think this is possible to maintain — but a boss-employee friendship is a definite no-no. You’ll quickly find that favoritism comes into play, not to mention if one of you has to discipline the other. Respect is hard to maintain, too, if you and your direct report or manager know all of each other’s personal business.

• Colleagues who seem to be in competition with you.

I mentioned it above, but it bears repeating: people who are in competition with you are not your friends. This goes for non-work acquaintances, too (like that “friend” who’s always going after the girl or guy you like). They are not people who will be happy for you when you succeed, especially over them, and they’ll relish in your setbacks.

• Colleagues who are unprofessional.

That super-gossipy colleague may seem fun, but don’t get too close to them — you could quickly be drawn into unprofessional behavior yourself. As unfair as it may seem, the people with whom you associate affect your own reputation, and you don’t want to have that label, too.

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