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February 15, 2018

Your Tips for Managing Personal Relationships at Work

Lucy Bishop

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©© GettyImages/Eachat

Work is a huge part of our lives. Think about it: assuming that we work an average 39 hours a week, that's over 90,000 hours in a lifetime, or about a third of our lives!

And, as the writer Annie Dillard once said, "How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives." So, it's only natural that some of the closest relationships that we form are with people we see every day at work.

In fact, having work colleagues that you count as friends, or even partners, can have significant personal and organizational benefits. It can improve staff retention, job satisfaction, morale, teamwork, collaboration, and productivity.

What Are the Risks of Relationships at Work?

But, a 2015 study revealed that there are also risks in having personal relationships at work. For example, they can be a major distraction. Small talk with co-workers is one thing, but these chats can sometimes lead to deeper discussions – which, while fun, can eat into core work time.

Personal relationships at work can lead to emotional exhaustion, too. Friendships take effort, after all, and the time and energy we put into them can take its toll.

Then there are the ugly ramifications if things go wrong. If a relationship turns sour, you can't just walk away – you'll likely still have to see that person every day. We're also more likely to feel envious of the people we are close to, which can cause problems if, say, your spouse gets promoted over you.

Finally, there's the big issue that's on everyone's minds at the moment – personal boundaries. What if someone oversteps the mark and becomes a bit too friendly or, worse, behaves inappropriately? Where does the professional relationship stop and the personal start?

Your Tips for Managing Personal Relationships at Work

We wanted to find out your thoughts on how to deal with personal relationships in the workplace. So, we threw this question out to our followers on social media. As ever, the responses that we received gave some great insights into the topic. Here are some of the best ones:

Communication and Listening Are Essential

An interesting conversation developed on Twitter, which focused on how good communication and, in particular, good listening skills can help to solidify relationships at work.

@SavvySarahSPM kick-started the discussion with her comment, "Take time to invest in your workplace relationships – show genuine interest in others, get to know people as individuals, learn about what motivates them. We can all make positive connections with those we work with without necessarily being friends. Everyone benefits."

This sparked a debate about how to show "genuine" interest in others, with many of you suggesting that the key is to listen. As @Midgie_MT explained, "People tend to listen just waiting for their chance to reply! It takes practice and some effort to be fully present and to fully listen!"

Another of our followers, @joolsbk, labeled this kind of listening "autobiographical." She went on to say, "It has been such a useful term when working with people new to coaching and other situations where they need to learn to listen deeply."

Don't Forget the Bottom Line

Some of you suggested that the responsibility of managing personal relationships at work should be down to the organization. LinkedIn follower Stephen Thorlby-Coy said that organizations should, "Treat staff as adults! Friendships and romantic relationships are inevitable – as are conflict and falling out. Managers should focus on managing work impact, not the cause."

Noha Kamel, also on LinkedIn, agreed. She said, "The most important guideline is our organization's welfare." She also recommended staying clear of "ego attacks."

Separating the Personal and Professional

Interestingly, many of you believe that the key to successfully managing personal relationships at work is to avoid them entirely!

As LinkedIn follower Yolande explained, "Keep it professional. If you want to be friends with someone, be sure that both of you understand that work is work, and friendship is friendship, and you can't mix the two." Todd William Bagnall agreed. He said, "Each situation is different. I try to steer clear of sentimental relationships at work as they can affect decision making."

On Facebook, our friend Precious Anum took a similar stance. She said, "Never mix personal and professional life." Mohammad Ismail Banat, said that, for him, keeping the personal separate from the professional helps him to avoid unconscious bias. He revealed, "I am positively tough, hence I will not allow personal relationships to be mixed with work. Usually, having a personal relationship with a colleague means that I should give him/her extra attention and waste more time on personal things rather than work."

Do you agree that personal relationships have no place at work? Or, if not, how do you make sure that they don't affect your professionalism and productivity? Share your thoughts, below.

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13 comments on “Your Tips for Managing Personal Relationships at Work”

  1. Like many things in life, I believe that there needs to be a balanced approach. Having a friend at work is correlated with increased engagement. When you think about it, this makes sense. You can go to a friend at work to gain perspective on a situation, seek advice or get a boost of motivation when your spirits are down. I was part of a four person virtual team that worked on a three year project. Over the period of the three years the team developed strong friendships. These friendships helped to get us through tight delivery timelines and the obstacles that we encountered along the way. We were one committed team - committed to excellence and getting the job done. I left the company a while ago and we still maintain contact. If one of the team is visiting my city, we get together. Skype is also our friend.

    On the flip side, friendships at work, if not handled professionally, can create havoc. Rumor mills and unnecessary drama can inflict a lot of damage on employee morale, productivity and relationships within an organization.

    For me, the key word is professionalism. There needs to be a level of maturity present. You can be friends at work and be focused and productive if you are goal oriented.

    1. Thanks Michele for sharing your thoughts. I agree that a balanced approach is important and overall the need for professionalism in our relationships. As long as we are professional in our interactions and keep our personal interactions outside of the workplace, then it is great to have friends in the workplace.

  2. I think promotional friendship is better, unless to spoil the work non giving a profit to the work that's worst. thanks machael

  3. Interesting comments, mostly suggesting that friendships at work be avoided.
    Here is a different perspective. The company where I work actually encourages friendships and relationships outside of the workplace. It is felt that it increases Morale and when we see the "other side" of our "away from work personalities", we are less judgemental and critical of people when they make a different decision than we may have wanted. We actually work better together. We become more comfortable around one another and we are more likely to approach a co-worker with a concern if we know that person as a friend.
    We have a very active social committee; there are board game nights, a night at horse races, or a football game, casino nights, laser tag, family picnics, bocce ball, golf tournament, paint night, or let's order in lunch or have a pot luck and all have lunch together. We have "mixers" where the CEO begins by giving everyone an update on what's new in the business, what's coming up and any other changes happening, then we bring our lunch and beverages and we mingle, hopefully with someone we've never worked directly with before (We are approx 350 people with many departments). We have an annual Fiscal year end party, Christmas party and childrens Christmas party.
    We learn to respect one another. We laugh together and support each other through difficult times. We learn empathy and it is reflected in the workplace.
    On at least 4 occasions over the last 15 years we have collectively donated extra vacation time to an employee with a family member who was very ill, We have chosen to donate our own vacation time to a coworker so that they can be away with their loved one without losing pay. As a group, we have donated anywhere from 5 to 9 months of vacation time (anywhere from a few hours to a whole week each) to an employee in need of it.
    We have several married couples working here and a few siblings or parent/"adult child" relationships. The only rules surrounding working with someone you have a personal relationship is that they may work in the same department , but never is one at a higher level than another. (ie one is never a manager over a family member) and we don't call parents mom or dad (or any endearment) when at work. We use first names to keep it at a professional level. In fact its first names for everyone including the president and the directors and vice presidents (of various departments)
    Our business is over 50 years old and this has always been the way it is here. It is considered a very good place to work

    1. Thanks for sharing the story of your workplace with us, Bev. It sure sounds like a great place to work. It also goes to show that it's possible to have friendships with colleagues outside of the workplace, and still keep it professional at work. It takes a high level of emotional maturity, but if most people act that way a person who acts differently is going to stick out like a sore thumb.
      Obviously, there are also clear rules and boundaries that definitely help.
      Yolande, MT

  4. I believe in proffessionalisn in place of work.where relationship between opposite sex can develop some gossips, jealousy, conflicts among workmate this will jeopardize productivity, morale team work goes down.some employee can decide to resign.

    1. True, unless everybody is able to be mature and professional about it and realize that work is work, and friendship outside of work can't influence what happens in the workplace.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      Yolande, MT

  5. while i do agree the topic is quite tricky to make a line, there is fundamental question to ask, If we cannnot start genuine relationship at the place of work without challenge of drawing the line, where in life will we have apple time to meet and be fully acquittance with one another for future genuine relationship?
    As early as schooling time we get warned of getting so much involved with friendship on expense of education. College level the same. At internship warning are posted all over. Where then can relationships be tested? Would there be enough time to learn each other well enough?
    Let us dialogue on this relationship at places of work.

    1. Thanks Paul for sharing your thoughts. I think we could debate for a long time the merits and downfalls of personal relationships at work. For me, there is a fine line between when a relationship is ok and when it becomes distracting or destructive in the workplace. Midgie, MT

  6. In any organization, relationship in the work space is only natural and inevitable. Friendship among team members engenders support and a positive factor in goals as long as maturity and professionalism is maintained. However, romantic and dependent relationship is likely to be damaging to a team's/organizational attainment; and, should be given very deep thoughts or at best be avoided.

    1. I think the key points you make about maturity and professionalism is really the key that makes the difference to friendships or relationships in the workplace! Without that, there can be negative consequences and impact on the workplace. - Midgie, MT

  7. Really so interesting article with a lot of information. Many many thanks for sharing with us the great tips.

    1. You're welcome. The golden rule is to remain professional at all times. After all, everybody prefers dealing with a professional rather than an unprofessional person.

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