Friendships at work are typically seen as beneficial—they bring people closer together, create a feel-good environment, and can add some much-needed fun to the workplace. But can too much palling around at the office be a bad thing?
According to Wharton management professor and department chair Nancy Rothbard and Julianna Pillemer GRW19, a Wharton doctoral candidate whose research focuses on organizational behavior, the answer might not be so straightforward. In their paper “Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship,” Rothbard and Pillemer explore the dynamics of such relationships.
The paper’s conclusions mostly line up with what one might expect: The benefits of socially integrating an office, if done correctly, can include lifelong friendships, greater cooperation, and a vastly more enjoyable day-to-day grind. But on the flip side, we shouldn’t ignore the risks that work friendships can produce. As Rothbard explains in a conversation with Knowledge@Wharton, “Too much friendship can lead to destruction in the workplace.”
How can this be the case, especially in an era in which organizations are trying hard to encourage employee bonding, installing foosball tables in the break room and tearing down cubicle walls? For starters, the risks of a conflict of interest increase dramatically when friendship is involved. If you’re close with a co-worker, it may be difficult to tell that person you disagree on a key work-related issue. Or, perhaps even more dangerously, you may find yourself more easily persuaded to take that person’s side, leading you to adopt a position that might not benefit the organization. “It can be hard to go against a friend who’s advocating really strongly for one particular position, because they might get mad at you,” Rothbard says. “So you might hold back even though you believe there’s another direction that might be better.”
Another potential pitfall of workplace interaction has emerged in the internet age. Cliques have always existed, but now, social media is creating new types of transparency, and even the most seemingly innocent post on Facebook or Instagram can border on over-sharing or exclusion. “Social media is a whole new clique where people are posting photos,” notes Pillemer. “Certainly, I’ve experienced thinking, ‘Oh, these co-workers went and hung out without me.’ You might not even have noticed that clique in person in the office. So that’s an example of how social media can amplify some of these dark sides.”
Rothbard and Pillemer stress the importance of managing workplace relationships, which can benefit both the employees and the company. Work friends should set expectations for challenging each other in meetings, as well as establish catch-up coffee dates to avoid social interruptions during the day. Managers also need to balance collegial culture with safeguards, like creating cross-functional lunches to encourage new interactions. “We’re not saying you shouldn’t encourage friendship,” Pillemer says. “But [managers should be aware] of the dark sides and how to guard against them structurally within the organization.”
Published as “The Dark Side of Workplace Friendships” in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Wharton Magazine.