Work Friends vs. Real Friends

Posted by Alexandra Levit on May 9, 2011
Work Friends vs. Real Friends
I will never forget it. I was standing on the corner of 43rd Street and Broadway in New York City with my coworker Laura. Laura and I had been through a lot together in the year we had worked on the same public relations account team. We had coped with ego-obsessed executives and unreasonable clients, and we had implemented innovative and creative ideas neither of us knew we had in us. Nearly every day, Laura and I had lunch together to dish about our projects and the latest goings-on in our personal lives.

Standing on the corner, I said to Laura, “I’m so glad you’re one of my closest friends.”

She looked at me strangely. “Alex,” she said. “There’s a difference between close friends and people you talk to at work. You know that, right?”

Laura’s response may have been a little harsh, but it taught me an important lesson about work friends vs. real friends: It’s easy to mistake one for the other, especially when you’re struggling to establish a social life. In school, making friends is as simple as walking over to the dorm room next door and plopping down on the bed. After college, however, there are no such opportunities. Because you might be too busy to go out and meet new people, the tendency is to target your coworkers. It makes sense. After all, they might be the only people you know that are your age, and you see them for eight hours every day.

While many people use work as a springboard for building strong friendships outside the office, I wouldn’t assume your colleagues are your new best friends just because you take your coffee breaks together. Laura was right—there are differences between close friends who will be there for you through life’s tough times and people you hang out with while you happen to be stuck in the same building. You can spare yourself disappointment later on by noting the differences between a work friend and a real friend. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

•   If your friend left the company, would you still be in touch with her in a year?
•   If you had a personal emergency, would you consider asking your friend for help?
•   Do you hang out with your friend outside the office? (Weekday lunch, happy hour, and business trips don’t count.)
•   Have you met your friend’s significant other? What about her friends outside the office?
•   If your friend received the promotion you were banking on, would you be genuinely happy for her?
•   If you ran into your friend in the grocery store, would you be able to talk to her for 10 minutes without mentioning work?
•   Have you seen where your friend lives?
•   Do you and your friend have anything in common besides your age and your job?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, you might have found yourself a real friend at work. Take care of this relationship by making a concerted effort to spend time with your friend outside the office. You and your friend should also avoid working together too closely. Like living with close friends, being in business with them can sometimes be disastrous. Whether we like it or not, people can behave differently when money, power, and careers are at stake. Suppose you and your friend pair up for a high-profile, new business project. Your friend could be the kindest, most generous person in the world after quitting time, but she might take all the credit and do none of the work in the office. You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you must choose between your friendship and your career.

If you’re lucky, someone you meet at work could turn into a friend for life. It happened to me. My friend Kathryn and I started our PR careers in the same department many moons ago, and she later was the maid of honor in my wedding!
Alexandra Levit is the author of four books and a writer for several business and career publications, including the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. Her career advice has been featured in more than 800 media outlets, including the New York Times and National Public Radio.  Levit regularly speaks nationwide on work issues facing young employees.

This article was excerpted from They Don’t Teach Corporate in College by Alexandra Levit.  To buy the book, click here.

Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from THEY DON'T TEACH CORPORATE IN COLLEGE, REVISED EDITION © 2009 Alexandra Levit.  Published by Career Press, Franklin Lakes, NJ.  800-227-3371.  All rights reserved.

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