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The Boston Globe

Tread carefully when making friends at work

By Joan Axelrod-Contrada, Globe Correspondent, 4/10/05

Globe Photo/Nancy Palmieri
Hairstylists Michelle Sowell (left), and Colleen Secovich became friends in their 20s and have maintained their close ties even after one went to work for the other in a Northampton salon.

Globe Photo/Nancy Palmieri
Sowell (far right) and Secovich with a customer in their shop in Northampton. "With a good friend, you can be honest," says Sowell.

Globe Photo/Nancy Palmieri
Sowell (right) works on a customer while chatting with Secovich.

Friends or enemies? In the competitive world of office politics, it isn't always easy to tell the difference.

Friendships at work can be either highly rewarding, fiercely malicious, or something in between. Workplace specialists recommend that you tread carefully when making friends in the workplace. Your livelihood is at stake.

"The focus at work and in business has to be the job first," says sociologist Jan Yager, PhD and author of "Who's That Sitting At My Desk? How to Succeed by Mastering Work Relationships."

"If a preexisting friendship puts either friend in the tough situation of having to choose between the friendship and the job, it can have devastating consequences to the job, the friendship, or both," she said.

Through her 20 years of research into friendship, Yager has found that it takes an average of three years to know whether or not someone is a tried and true friend. She says that casual relationships generally work better than close ones in the office. However, friendships that start out as casual may become closer with time and effort as long as everyone proceeds with care.

Many employers favor friendships between equals but disapprove of relationships between managers and subordinates. In a 2002 survey by the American Society for Public Administration, the "pros" of office friendships outranked the "cons" by a ratio of four to one. The biggest "cons": increased gossip, office romances, and distractions from work-related activities.

Although Yager's research shows that the number one benefit of an office friendship is more fun at work, close ties can also complicate matters. Friends might be competing for the same raise or promotion. They open themselves up emotionally, thus increasing their risk of hurt feelings. Saying "no" to a friend can be a lot more difficult than saying "no" to an acquaintance. And, when conflicts arise, it may be harder to keep the work- related disagreements separate from the personal relationship.

Yager points to two types of conflict at work that can be particularly stressful. In the first, one friend is promoted over another. In the second, one co-worker, who proves to be anything but a friend, betrays another's confidences.

Kristin Cicciarella, a 26-year-old facilities coordinator who lives in Everett, knows all about the difficulties of being promoted over a friend. One of her old friendships soured after she was promoted to supervisor. "Any criticisms or suggestions were met with expressions of hostility, disrespect, and personal attacks," Cicciarella recalls. "She would say things like, 'you think you're better than me,' or 'of course you think your version is better.'?"

In the hopes of remedying the situation, Cicciarella turned to her supervisor for help, but to no avail. The supervisor, she said, responded with comments like "oh you girls," and "can't you two just get along?"

Often, opening up to a co-worker about work-related matters can be more dangerous than sharing information about life outside the job. Meredith Macdonald, a 33-year-old assistant property manager in Coral Springs, Fla., told a co-worker her thoughts about work-related matters, only to have her words repeated back to the boss.

"Later I found out that she had done this only to further her career," Macdonald, a former Bostonian, says. "The lesson to be learned: careful who you trust, and once in a while you truly can meet great friends in the workplace."

Even some relationships that might seem problematic at first, like one close friend reporting to another, can succeed if the two have what it takes to make it work.

Oprah Winfrey, for example, chose her longtime best friend Gayle King to edit "O: the Oprah Magazine." Yager sees them as a role model of best friends who are able to thrive despite the demands of work.

"Of course I'm only an outside observer, but it seems to me that what makes it possible is that those friends are truly close or best friends in that they can say anything to each other, and they do," says Yager. "They don't seem to have to hold back their opinions for fear that the other won't be able to handle it."

Hairstylist Michele Sowell, 36, of A Notch Above Hair Salon in Northampton agrees. She expects her close friend, Colleen Secovich, who owns the salon, to be able to tell her anything. "With a good friend, you can be honest," says Sowell.

Sowell and Secovich became close friends as single women in their 20s and successfully maintained their relationship even after one went to work for the other. They understand each other so well, they finish each other's sentences. When Sowell asked if she could pay rent and so develop her own business within the salon, Secovich readily agreed. "Colleen doesn't pull rank," says Sowell. "Salons can be very cutthroat - everyone for themselves - but we all help one another."

Before 52-year-old management consultant Bruce Katcher started his own firm, Discovery Surveys Inc., of Sharon, he worked in a highly competitive firm where he made no lasting friendships and another, smaller one where he did. These days, he belongs to a group of management consultants, The Enterprise Group, which fosters friendship by admitting only members who do not compete against each other.

Robin Lucier, a general manager at B.I. Makepeace Inc., a Brighton supplier of products and services to design professionals, tries to set clear expectations to keep the downsides of office friendship in check. If cliques start creating an "us against them" mindset, she'll remind everyone that fellow workers need to be treated with respect.

Although the promotion of one friend over another might cause resentment, she believes a senior manager can address the problem by coaching the new supervisor and talking to the underling about why he or she was passed over. Like many managers, Lucier believes the pros of office friendship far outweigh the cons.

"You don't want to work some place that's so strict, you can't have a few laughs," she says.

Issues you should never discuss at work

In her book "Who's That Sitting at My Desk? How to Succeed by Mastering Work Relationships," sociologist Jan Yager lists seven things you should never share with a friend at work:

  1. Business confidences that would be a violation of trust and ethics if revealed to anyone.
  2. Family secrets that put someone else in your family in any level of jeopardy.
  3. Who you are having an affair with or who you used to have an affair with.
  4. Sexual comments about your spouse or romantic partner.
  5. Anything you would not feel comfortable having repeated on the news or reading about in a national newspaper.
  6. Any negative feelings about the boss, co-worker, company, president, customer, or client.
  7. Comments that are racist, sexist, antiaging, or against any religion or culture.

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