NEW YORK — When it comes to workplace relationships, the general advice is to keep your distance. After all, friendships can be tested by a number of different issues in the workplace. But the people we see every day at work often become our closest friends. It's no wonder, since we spend roughly half of our waking hours with them. • So what's the secret to balancing work and friendships, especially when things get rocky?
Know what comes first
When you make friends at the office, you need to keep some important perspective: You're primarily at the company as an employee, not a friend. And remember that some bosses frown on personal relationships in the workplace.
The last thing you want is to get passed up for a promotion or not be taken seriously because you are a social butterfly, chatting with friends rather than working. Or, because a friendship gets in the way of your responsibilities — for example, if your co-worker makes a serious mistake and you don't report it because you're friends.
"Work is work, we're hired to do a job and as long as that takes priority, friendships can emerge naturally, be very constructive and quite enjoyable," said Janie Fritz, associate professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Duquesne University.
You have to trust your friends, but you have to trust your work friends more. Whether you realize it or not, the friends you make at work can have an impact on how your bosses view you. If your friend has productivity problems or other issues, you might find yourself under greater scrutiny.
And, if you and your friend have a falling out and it turns out that he or she is the vindictive type, the last thing you want to worry about is someone spreading rumors or creating an awkward situation.
It's also important to be extra vigilant about work friends' ability to keep secrets — that person you're confiding in might have an agenda of his or her own. Or, he or she might be just one of those people who can't keep their mouths shut.
Zip the lip
A major issue that tends to come up in workplace relationships, Fritz said, is when people divulge too much about their personal lives.
For example, sharing brief stories about your family is fine, but it's best to save those long talks about your personal problems for social settings like bars or restaurants, not the office.
And while it may seem obvious, if you and your friends dislike the same people in the office, keep it to yourselves. If you spread gossip or rumors about others at work, it can quickly cause trouble for you with other co-workers as well as your boss.
The technology age
Fritz recommends that employees don't "friend" each other or their bosses on Facebook and Twitter.
"You just never know about who you let in and what people might say," she said.
But if it's something you really want to do, be sure to keep things simple. Amp up those privacy settings so your co-workers can see as little of your personal information as possible. And in general, keep things tame on social networking sites so you're less likely to get into trouble at work. Another option? Keep separate Facebook pages: one for personal friends, another for the office.
The popularity of social networking sites and video sharing sites like YouTube make it even more important to get close only to people you can trust. Say, for instance, that both of you are at a party that gets a little out of hand. It's all too easy for a photo or video of you to get posted on the Internet that you didn't intend for the world or your boss to see.
Friends often have issues with each other, and that can complicate their professional relationships as well. Maybe your friend is constantly bad-mouthing the boss. Or gossiping, making you uncomfortable. Or, maybe you've had a fight, or the friendship is just fading.
Fritz recommends "creating distance." That not only means spending less time talking with that friend at the office, but also consciously steering more conversations to work-related topics. That way, you'll be able to get back on task without alienating your friend or making trouble at the work.
Uneven playing field
What if one of you gets promoted, or is on shaky ground with management? To put it simply, when workers are on different levels, the friendship has to take a back seat.
If there's now a supervisor-employee relationship between you and your friend, it may be hard to have a friendship when there's also friction over assignments, performance reviews and other aspects of working for someone else. One friend might expect special treatment, something that could jeopardize both jobs. The friendship can survive only if both people agree to keep their work and professional lives entirely separate — something that is hard for most people to do.
If your friend is in trouble with management, or might be fired, Fritz said the key is to assist your friend without putting your own job in jeopardy. Maybe your friend expects you to stand up for him or her. If that will hurt your job, you have to decide which is more important, the friendship or your paycheck.
Offer sympathy and support, but be clear you can't listen to complaints about the job. Those negative vibes will only affect your own work. Instead, try to steer your friend into action by giving him a push in the right direction, like offering to send a resume to some of your professional contacts.