Friendships at Work: Who to Know, Who to Avoid

By Robert Half July 30, 2017 at 3:00pm

You’ve heard of some of the most successful partners and corporate duos: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Orville and Wilbur Wright, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They joined forces to create, collaborate and innovate, all the while developing quintessential friendships at work.

But are work friends really necessary for finance and accounting professionals? Do we need to cultivate coworker connections in order to be successful in our careers?

Yes, say employees — or at least 62 percent of them in a recent Accountemps survey — responding that friends at work can positively affect productivity. But when their bosses were asked how such relationships affect productivity, only 39 percent were in agreement.

How about friendship’s impact on workplace happiness? Robert Half’s "The Secrets of the Happiest Companies and Employees" report shows that those who say they have good relationships with their teams are 2.5 times more likely to be happy on the job than those who don't get along well with colleagues. And a sense of camaraderie at work can improve employee communication, cooperation and collaboration, which contributes to career success.

If you’re going to forge ahead with your workplace pals, what’s the best approach? It’s good to know what types of colleagues to become close with — and which ones to keep at a distance.

The best buds to have at work

  • The Caring Critic

Having an in-office ally who can offer insightful feedback and constructive criticism on your ideas or projects can be invaluable. Getting an honest opinion from someone who has your best interests at heart — and who understands the unique nuances and inner workings of your organization — can help you fine-tune your approach so you can make the biggest impact and best impression possible.

Wozniak and Jobs, who founded Apple in 1976, had what’s described as an iconic partnership, in which the technical expertise of one paired with the business foresight of the other. Imagine the conversations they must have had!

  • The Handy Helper

Feeling swamped? It’s beneficial to have a trusted and reliable friend in the office to lean on for both support and assistance when you feel overburdened. While lone-wolf workers might be left to fend for themselves during a deadline emergency, accounting professionals who make the effort to build strong alliances and engagement will likely have no shortage of helping hands to call upon. 

In Hewlett’s Stanford obituary, it was pointed out that the lifelong friends and co-founders of electronics company Hewlett-Packard in 1939 “often stepped into each other's professional shoes.”

  • The Cool-Headed Veteran 

Forging a friendship with a successful and upbeat senior member of your team is another smart move. In times of crisis or uncertainty, a time-tested colleague “who’s been down this road before” can impart wisdom and a sense of perspective. These types of more tenured workers, whether they’re in management or not, can mentor you, helping you hone new abilities and maintain a healthy, positive attitude.

General Motor CEO Mary Barra said her career has been influenced by a network of mentors. One encouraged her to express her viewpoints more confidently at meetings, and another crystallized the importance of honoring commitments, professional and personal.

Problematic pals in the workplace

  • The Party Pooper 

Just as the upbeat attitude of a perennial optimist is contagious, frequently fraternizing with naysayers can influence your feelings about your job, too. Even if they are perfectly pleasant to you, be careful about aligning yourself with incorrigible whiners who constantly complain or gossip. They may not be entirely trustworthy, and being too chummy with negative nellies can lead to guilt by association.

  • The Talkative Time Sucker

Remember that you’re at work to, well, work. In general, be mindful of how much time you spend socializing. If you’re not careful, you can unwittingly allow chatty work friends to become distractions. Keep the water-cooler banter to a minimum and don’t let lunch hour turn into an all-afternoon gabfest. You can always catch up before work over coffee with a fellow employee or grab a bite to eat together at the end of the day.

  • The Favor Thief

“The only way to have a friend is to be one,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. It’s an important adage to consider in the workplace. If you’re constantly pitching in for a so-called “friend” who never returns the favor, it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship. Likewise, if people assist you in your hour of need, it’s imperative that you reciprocate — even if their requests for backup come at an inopportune time.

Fostering friendships at work

If you want that support system and sounding board that friends at work can provide, here are three suggestions:

  1. Participate in your company’s team-building activities, social events or interest groups, if they have them.
  2. Offer to help others on a project or task, either on the job or outside work hours.
  3. Manage your boundaries so you keep your personal information private and aren’t distracted at work.

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