The Case Against Having Friends At Work
Before I really entered the workforce, I assumed that the people I worked with would all be my best, most lifelong friends. Without realizing it, I had assumed that my coworkers would begin to form my core social group as I got older. That hasn’t actually happened to me, but I know why I thought it would.
Representations of workplaces like “The Office,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Cheers” and dozens of other television shows and movies show a world where the characters’ primary social connections are with people who all collect a paycheck from the same place as they do.
Narratively and dramatically, workplace stories make sense. Workplaces give you characters who can be very different who are thrown together for set amounts of time and face a variety of challenges or conflicts. But we’re not convinced that privileging or celebrating the overlapping Venn Diagram between friendship and work is the best move in real life.
We’re talking about a dynamic that is more specific than just getting along with your coworkers. Nobody wants to spend their days in an actively hostile work environment or one where nobody cracks a joke or asks about how things are going outside the office. We recognize both the pleasures of getting along with the people you spend somewhere around 40 hours a week with, and the necessity of recognizing that we and our colleagues are more than just automatons. But the cultural impetus towards friendship at work is a bit different. We’re questioning the ways that workplaces encourage workers to merge your social life and your work life into one thing; where the people who you hang out with on the clock are the ones you hang out with off the clock.
We’ve seen ways that the culture of friendship at work becomes a requirement for social performance that obscures the mechanics of a workplace and ways that it can create cliques, social pressure, and reinforce hierarchies.
It’s a little odd to be writing about the problems with friendship at work because I genuinely really like my coworkers here at Fractured Atlas. I like to talk with them, hear what they’re up to, and banter around when we can. But at the end of the day, we aren’t each other’s whole social worlds. And, perhaps most importantly, the culture at Fractured Atlas doesn’t expect us to be or punish us if we’re not. There isn’t a robust calendar of theoretically optional social gatherings outside of work hours or the expectation that we all join a kickball league.
At the end of the day, our lives aren’t expected to orbit around Fractured Atlas socially as well as professionally.
Workplaces Can Weaponize Friendship
Workplaces can use socializing and friendship for their own ends in a variety of ways.
When the boundaries between work and hanging out get blurred, it serves to obscure the relationship workers have to the institutions and companies that they work for. When everything seems too “fun” or doesn’t seem like work, it can be easy to forget that you, as a worker, are literally paid to be there. Under the best case you might like your job, the work you do, and the people you do it with. But fundamentally, you are exchanging your labor power for money.
It’s hard to set appropriate boundaries around work, hours, and expectations (let alone professional communication standards) when there’s the expectation that your coworkers are your primary friends and that work is the primary place you hang out.
When there are too many pinball machines, catered lunches, and happy hours, workplaces promote the idea that we’re all having fun together. And if we’re all having fun together, what’s the problem with staying late, answering emails on the weekends, and never taking a vacation?
Workplaces that blur the boundaries between work and friendship can make it hard to take vacation or even a lunch break, let alone find a new job. It can be hard for individuals to take the breaks and rest that you need (and, in many cases, are legally allotted).
You might worry that you will make life harder for your friends if you do what you need to to do to take care of yourself. In reality, that’s not something that is down to individual worker choices, but an issue of organizational design. If a workplace falls apart if someone takes a lunch break or a few days off, that’s indicative of some serious structural issues.
When workplaces treat themselves as social centers, it’s often in service of their own bottom lines, missions, or deliverables. These structures can make us work harder and longer, and feel grateful for the opportunity rather than see the dynamic for what it is.
Risks of Cliques and In-Crowds at Work
Work cultures that are very buddy-buddy can end up replicating privileged in-crowds of similar people. Think about every story about every workplace boys’ club you’ve ever heard of or every time there’s one POC person on staff who somehow just doesn’t get invited out for group events because people think they are “difficult” or “not fun.”
Not being invited to socialize, not accepting or being able to accept the invitation, or not being seen as being a part of the in-crowd can have negative consequences at workplaces where popularity counts. Getting together for happy hours or birthdays or golf trips can make it easier to get better opportunities, be considered for a promotion, or make a good impression on people in power.
If social capital is strongly linked to success at work, the people who have a harder time fitting in, or who simply don’t want to engage in that kind of social structure, will end up paying the price.
So, if you aren’t popular at work for some reason or another, but are still great at your job and good to work with, you might find it hard to move up or network at your workplace.
Workplaces and industries that put a premium on being friends with coworkers and socializing a lot end up working against people who are introverts or who don’t have the time or disposable income to socialize a lot outside of work. It’s hard to make it to every happy hour when you have to pick up your kid from school, rush off to your second job, or just recharge after a day of work.
Plus, what happens if the org chart shifts and people find themselves all of a sudden managing people who were their peers before? It’s always a tough transition, but the blurring of lines between friendship and professionalism only make it more complex and potentially uncomfortable.
Having Friends at Work Isn’t All Bad
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any good things about having friends at work, even very close friends.
For one thing, having friends is nice. It just is! And there’s a lot of pleasure in finding that the people who you spend a lot of your time with during the day are compatible with you outside of what you both get paid to do.
Depending on the industry you work in, you might find that compatibility is pretty natural. Especially in industries where people are bound by shared interests or passions (the arts, for example), it’s not surprising that people find deeper relationships than just as colleagues.
Having friends at work can also help you find allies and professional ears for a second opinion if you find yourself in trouble. If you are close with a colleague, it can be easier to have conversations about pay transparency or to ask for a reference during a job interview process. It’s also easier to check with friends if you think something your boss just said was racist and if so, how to talk about it. You can advocate for one another. Coworkers who don’t have particularly close relationships can also do this for each other, but sometimes friendship helps.
You Can Still Be a Whole Person at Work
In the end, we aren’t saying that you shouldn’t be friendly with the people you work for. But we are saying that we should reconsider the social requirements at a lot of jobs. We should be asking why they exist, who they benefit, and what happens to the people who can’t or don’t meet those requirements.
The end goal of this inquiry isn’t to make us colder to one another or more rigid. It’s to help us accept that when we show up to work, we are whole people already. We have communities, families, friends, and interests that don’t just go away when we walk into a job. And we shouldn’t be expected to subsume all parts of ourselves into our work’s ecosystem.
Part of developing a healthy work environment is letting workers show up as our authentic selves while still respecting that we have a lot going on in our lives outside of our work. So, rather than going all in, maybe bring around 85% of yourself to work.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.