5 Common Pitfalls of Work Friendships

Here's how not to end up fired and friendless.

Posted May 15, 2011

She's your boss-- and your friend (at least when she can actually loosen up and act like a normal human being). As the lines between professional and personal life become increasingly blurred, and people spend more hours of the day working (or at least pretending to), it's unrealistic to think that work can't-- or shouldn't-- engender true friendships. Nonetheless, there are six common missteps that can spell doom for the ever-tenuous dance between colleague and friend:

Drawing Inadequate Boundaries: You need not put Saran Wrap around your cube, but you must find a way not to violate the first tenet of professionalism: maintaining adequate boundaries. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time to let your team members know about your blog, or confide to that intern about that you went through a bit of a hallucinogenic phase in high school. Tread carefully. Whether it's too loud of personal phone calls or having a bright-pink email signature listing every last one of your favorite movie quotes, it can be quite tempting to reveal too much-- greatly damaging your professional identity in the process.

Creating an All-for-One and One-for-All Partnership: If you and your closer-than-close work buddy are virtually indistinguishable from each other (it's a bad sign if your bladders are in sync because of all the dual coffee and bathroom breaks), then you're denying yourself the opportunity to shine as an individual. And you're also entrusting your professional identity-- and future opportunities-- to someone else, who might be a fabulous friend but a less-than-stellar worker. If a natural, genuine friendship develops with a coworker, by all means, enjoy it. But don't let your bosom-buddyhood keep you from being seen as your own person.

Overindulging in Gossip: What would a workplace be without a little dirt? The answer is hard-- and quite boring-- to imagine. It's a natural human instinct to discuss other people, and it makes sense that in a self-contained community such as a workplace, occasional gossip-- just like passive-aggressive kitchen notes-- will happen. But becoming known as the office snarker, or being indiscreet or hurtful in your discussions, will only lose you trust-- and keep you from moving forward, both personally and professionally.

Letting Your Work Friends Be Your Only Circle: If your office is particularly close-knit, or you work grueling hours in a particularly emotional environment, you might truly feel like your coworkers understand you even better than your family does. In fact, the concept of the "work spouse"-- that partner-in-crime who gets you through the day-- is just beginning to get attention. But just as we all need relationships outside our family, so too do we need friends outside of our workplace. Outside friends might not know a thing about your TPS reports, but they'll be more able to provide you stress relief and distraction-- and better able to ring the the alarm bells if your work seems to be leading you down an unhealthy path.

Expecting To Be Treated as a Friend Instead of a Coworker: You might have the best boss in town. You're close, it's comfortable, and you count her among the people you care most for in life. That's wonderful! But it can easily come back to bite you if you forget that she's still your boss. Sometimes when you've got such a great rapport, it's easy to start expecting to be treated a bit better than everyone else, or to be surprised when special consideration doesn't come your way. Don't fall for this. Your boss expects you to follow the same procedures and rules as everyone else, whether your kids have playdates together-- or you share a shoe-shopping obsession-- or not.

Adapted from "The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends" (St. Martin's Press), by Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.

Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist, media commentator, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix and the Washington Post Express's longtime advice column Baggage Check.  Follow her on twitter @drandreabonior or Facebook orYouTube.