Home > What's in my head now? > Office Relationships – Personal, Professional, or Both

Office Relationships – Personal, Professional, or Both

One of the key differentiators for Gen Y is that we enjoy working with those we have relationships with. This has been documented and proven; and great managers are able to build these relationships. Even TIME magazine cites, “Friendship is such a strong motivator for them that Gen Y workers will choose a job just to be with their friends.”
But – what “type” of friendship is the “right” one to build?

I’ve been told numerous times to keep my professional and personal lives and relationships separate. But I don’t agree. I choose to work with individuals for the same reason I choose to build relationships in my personal life: shared values. And I firmly believe that it is a rarity to find someone who thinks and feels as you do, so when you do find that combination – why limit it to a ‘professional’ relationship? And thinking about it – what IS a professional relationship and what is the difference in a personal and professional relationship?

I guess some would say a professional relationship limits conversations to more business speak; where as personal relationships and conversations can go anywhere from politics to religion and all through the spectrum. I’m unsure who everyone else has worked with, but the people I’ve worked with have certainly made their belief system known; and I like that. For me, “what you see is what you get” and I hope to work with people who are the same way.

Is it so wrong to spend time with work ‘friends’ outside of the office? To baby-sit their children? To engage in their personal lives? I don’t think so. And it hasn’t necessarily hurt me in the past. Or I should say, it has not hurt me anymore than it would if a ‘personal friend’ hurt me in some way.

I think we should look at professional relationships the same way we do personal relationships. If someone betrays your trust or does something you don’t like personally – if you have a close relationship – I think it’s okay to ask about it. If they do something professionally, I think it’s okay to do the same. I believe as long as one realizes that there may be an EFFECT (positive or negative) on a working relationship based on a personal issue or vice versa – one is realizing they are taking a chance on that. But knowing and being open to taking that chance is really (I think) how we find true life long business partners AND friends. If you don’t open yourself up to a full, real relationship – no matter what form it may take – you’re closing yourself off to what could be something magical.

  1. April 20, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Hey Jamie,

    Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing them. I definitely prefer relationships that are personal and professional. I think that when you work in education, especially, this is possible. As long as you can draw some ethical “bright lines” and maintain a friendship with a colleague, I think it’s great.

    Some things worth considering when finding the boundaries:
    *How will you help each other know when an interaction needs to be strictly “personal” vs. “strictly professional?”
    *Are both sides committed to “making it work?”
    *What ground rules will you set for “cleaning up messes” when boundaries get blurred or crossed, so that you can both move forward in the relationship?

    These are just a few starting points. What would you add or change

    • April 20, 2011 at 10:39 am

      I think you’re 100% “right” on the ground rules / drawing boundaries – for most people. I don’t do it – BUT I’ve BEEN BURNED for not doing it, so something I’m working on ( ;

      I wonder why you think it’s especially easy in the education world? Is it because (in my opinion) our jobs are ‘changing people’s lives’? I would think that people that make LESS money than they could because they work in EDU (b’c they love education) would have similar value sets, no?

  2. April 20, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Hmmmmmm…….. I am a Boomer but my kids are Gen X and Gen Y and I’ve seen first hand the potential dangers of working with your friends (or being friends with your workers)

    What happens when a functional working relationship turns bad because of something that happened outside of work? Or a great personal relationship sours because of something that happened at work?

    Sorry, but I’ve see the impact inherent in mixing work and pleasure and while it looks good on paper, I for one recommend to my kids that they keep their working world and their personal world separate. And this is ESPECIALLY true if you are socializing with your subordinates or superiors and not only peers.

    Dr. PDG, Jakarta

    • April 20, 2011 at 10:41 am

      Interesting. I’ve been on both ends as well (hurt a professional relationship because of a personal issue and vice versa), however…some of the closest friends I’ve made (they’re like family now) were also made in the office. I don’t think I’m willing to sacrifice the possibility of those types of relationships as they don’t come around often. That said, I also have to be clear that I know the risks going in.

  3. April 20, 2011 at 10:36 am

    I agree with you that to get the most out of your professional relationships they also need to be personal. If someone doesn’t know your authentic self, you likely won’t get as much from working with them. I do draw a line, however, on airing a lot of dirty laundry, which can make things complicated. You know what I’m talking about 🙂

    What worries me a bit is that by being totally open in your business relationships you can risk creating a rift with someone that really damages not only you but your organization. And that is a problem. A lot of it depends on your work environment. If you’re a consultant it’s a lot easier to be very personal with your clients than if you work in a large corporation, where you are limited based on your contract with your company.

    • April 20, 2011 at 10:43 am

      I think you’re right – I just didn’t realize / categorize it that way. It is MUCH easier to be ‘personal’ when in both a consultative relationship as well as a start up company because you are not bound (as much usually) by the laws that govern the organization. Interesting point

  4. April 20, 2011 at 10:56 am

    For decades, the adage “people like to do business with people they like” has been true. Social media and the internet has made it possible to “like” more people much faster, and personal relationships develop more quickly as a result. Much like the “work 9 to 5” rule is going away, so goes the notion that we must separate our professional and personal lives (plural). For me, having one life (singular) that incorporates both work and personal relationships works far better in this digital era.

    • April 21, 2011 at 4:56 am

      That’s interesting, Mark – that you would bring up that social media has made it more acceptable and the digital arena has made this more possible as well as more pronounced. I never thought of it that way, but you’re 100% correct – interesting take.

  5. April 20, 2011 at 10:57 am

    I couldn’t agree more. True, meaningful relationships need to be personalized. It doesn’t matter if it’s professional or personal. I’ve been to many sales trainings that tell you not to get close to clients on a personal level. I find this completely old school and I count all of my clients as personal friends….hence, it’s easier to do business. I’m actually writing a similar post on my blog right now. Interesting stuff.

    • April 21, 2011 at 4:58 am

      I agree with you. While I try not to get “too personal” with clients, I definitely know things like how many kids they have, what holidays they celebrate, when they are going on vacation, etc. and it’s only served to make me a far better relationship builder and manager.

  6. Cameron plommer
    April 20, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Hey Jamie

    I tend to agree with you on this one, possibly because I’m gen y.

    To me mainly about being one person at work an outside work. I don’t want to feel like it have to be someone else when I go to work. Being friends with coworkers makes that so much more possible.

    • April 21, 2011 at 4:58 am

      I agree – as I said, “what you see is what you get” ( ;

  7. April 20, 2011 at 11:29 am

    On the Q12, an survey born from one of the most well-researched studies on workplace engagement in the world, there is a strange question:

    “Do you have a best friend at work?”

    Ever since they created the survey, The Gallup Organization has been excoriated for including this question. People respond with, “Why does this matter?” “A BEST friend? Really?” or “We can’t mix business and pleasure.”

    But Gallup has refused to budge on the question, for a surprisingly straightforward reason: it’s an extremely reliable indicator of engagement. People who have a best friend at work are simply more engaged in their jobs. They work better, harder, and more safely. They care about the people they work with, and this improves their performance.

    Just wanted to provide a little empirical research to support your hunch, Jamie. 😉

    • April 20, 2011 at 4:44 pm

      Josh – I love this. You always have the best evidence / studies to support ideas. This makes sense though – I care more about going to work each day when I have someone I look forward to seeing and I definitely work better when I have someone I can share a success with; both in and out of the office.

  8. April 20, 2011 at 11:30 am

    What I do is a part of who I am, and I don’t turn that off ever. When my Dad would come home from work, he would shift from his work persona to his home persona. I’m pretty much the same person anywhere I go, and I think that is a major difference between gen y and the older generations. We don’t ever stop being ourselves, and that means that our professional relationships are built the same way as personal ones.

    • April 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      I think you’re right. We don’t stop ‘being ourselves’ and I like that about Gen Y. Well said.

  9. April 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Hi Jamie,
    You asked and you shall receive. 🙂
    So here are the type of relationships that I’d stay away from: Romantic relationships with co-workers and friendships with the boss, manager, director, leadership people if they are in your direct chain of command.
    In other words, you can be a friend with a director over in another organization but I’d keep the boss vs. friend very clear. You can also be yourself (please be) but be careful what aspects of your life you share because then you open doors to having those aspects open to conversation and discussion. Some people have higher comfort levels than others. I was always more open to sharing because I loved to develop stronger bonds with my colleagues. Then there is all the etiquette on what to share/not to share even with colleagues and peers, such as salary and bonus and those types of sensitive topics that can never be good when shared. It creates tension. I think it’s highly encouraged to build relationships outside of work especially if you spend a lot of time working together and particularly if you like each other. Also, try to NEVER drink alcohol and always be in full alert mode when around your co-workers. I never do but I have heard stories about those who regret when they did. Well, I have more ideas but I think this is plenty to support my opinion here. best of luck, I wish you all happiness in your workplace.

    • April 20, 2011 at 4:40 pm

      Interesting. I knew you’d have the “best” advice, but knew I probably wouldn’t want to hear it. So, I MARRIED ( ; my co-worker – we’ve been together for 7 years…and often took my team out for happy hours.

      That said, I’ve also been burned sharing personal information with colleagues that they’ve used against me in a professional way, so….

      Ya live, ya learn. I think the sensitive topics and etiquette has to wait until you have a true personal relationship with someone, but I don’t think I would close myself off to the opportunity for that to happen.

      • Sadya
        April 21, 2011 at 7:04 am

        @Farnoosh – what about those who are junior in position to you and those who report directly to you?

    • April 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      I think you’re right. We don’t stop ‘being ourselves’ and I like that about Gen Y. Well said.

  10. April 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I think this sentiment has been alive and well in academia for a long time. On the one hand, if you’re in a highly competitive discipline (anything in the humanities), you don’t really have the luxury of choosing where you work; you go (or stay) where you have a job. But hiring committees will often talk about “fit”; is this someone that we not only see ourselves working with but hanging out with, too? Especially if you live in a smaller, more isolated community (as I do), your coworkers do become your friend, neighbors, and your kids become friends, too. Maybe that belies my age; technically, I just got in under the Gen X wire. Barely.

  11. Iris
    April 21, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Very interesting and thought-provoking article. I think when people say that one should “separate business from pleasure”, perhaps they mean if you are dating someone you work with/for, they shouldn’t be promoted strictly because of who their significant other is, or one shouldn’t sabotage someone at work because of a personal issue, or if someone works security and must go through a certain procedure with everyone, they shouldn’t allow friends/acquiantances to bypass the rules because of their relationship. My guess is that is what many people are referring to.

    It is ideal to have at minimum a good report with co-workers so that work can be as pleasant as possible and as a team, as well as individually, people can accomplish more. If one is able to make friends with said co-workers or even a boss or subordinates, even better. Everyone, however, isn’t able to prevent their personal feelings from affecting their dealings or relationship at work & vice versa. That being said, I think everyone should realize their limitations and what they can handle. “If you don’t open yourself up to a full, real relationship – no matter what form it may take – you’re closing yourself off to what could be something magical.” This reminds me of people saying that when you protect yourself too much from potential pain, you keep out the good along with the bad. This was a very profound statement you made. I guess this is yet another tightrope walk we must make in life.

  12. May 10, 2011 at 5:27 am

    Sadya, sorry I just saw your question: “@Farnoosh – what about those who are junior in position to you and those who report directly to you?” As in, what kind of relationship? I’d be very careful not making “friends” with your direct reports. Imagine if you made friends with half of your team because your personalities jived or whatever. When it is time for performance review, the rest of your time will resent you no matter what kind of angel you are – they know you naturally may “prefer” your friends. It’s about money, raises, promotion and it’s a business not a family you are running. I’d be careful. If you are just a team lead or something without any official reports, I’d say treat the junior people with same respect and help everyone equally but yes, friendships can develop with a few of those. Just my thoughts from just 12 years in the corporate world! 😉

  13. May 11, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    Wonderful post. I am always struck by the personal/professional distinction – as if all human relationships aren’t personal. Who are we in relationship with then? Objects? This artificial separation, IMHO, is one of, if not THE root cause of workplace dissatisfaction and dissengagement (and dysfunction). We are human beings, not human doings. The expectation that people have ‘professional’ relationships at work means different things to different people – and it is all in the eye of the beholder. The artificial distinction around professional relationships has resulted in management systems that are sterile and mechanistic. Our language – human ‘resources’, human ‘capital’, people are our most important ‘assets’ – suggests and supports a view of people as objects. In all my years of working in organizations (over 20 years), I have yet to meet one person who saw himself or herself as an object; they objected strongly in being treated like one. If I had a dollar for every manager I coached who complained about an employee’s behavior and wanted a procedure on how to deal with it (but who would be incensed if their manager were to treat them that way), I’d be a very wealthy woman.

    You have eloquently pointed to one of the most important issues in business today, one that I believe so many are unintentionally blind to. Organizations are human creations, where human beings come together to get things done. Human beings do that in relationship. Relationships can be messy – and there is no six-sigma process for dealing with individuals or groups of people. Some things work better than others, and process, guidelines and distinctions are important. But we are social, emotional, physiological creatures, and most people (even well-intentioned HR and OD people) don’t really understand the fundamentals/implications of that.

    Business isn’t personal, but work most definitely is. When we stop trying to pretend that we are biological robots, whole new ways of working are possible.
    Whole new conversations, about thoughts, emotions, perspectives and solutions are possible. We might just be able to have real conversations about what it means to be human at work – and stop pretending that work and life are two separate universes. I thank you for piercing the illusion.

  14. TQ
    June 3, 2011 at 2:49 am

    Jamie – its only the ‘opening’ part to having a shot at full, real relationship that is magical. What follows after that is the same old crap 🙂

  1. May 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm
  2. December 5, 2011 at 8:23 am
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