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Career Guide: A Colleague Or A Friend? The Great Debate!

By Heidi Lidholm — April 26, 2012

So we survived the first day fumbles and the first week flutters. By “we” I am referring to me plus every ear that came within a one meter radius of myself and I, in the past fortnight. That was until I was reminded “you will never move into the future if you are focusing on the past,” not by Dr. Phil but by my local caffeine provider turned therapist who refused to hand over the steaming goods until I vowed to move forward with confidence. I pledged my evolution of sureness and sipped my well-deserved cappuccino.

Later still feeling liberated, I was asked by my roommate “so have you made any friends at work?” I could feel my professional horizon enclosing around me. Suddenly I felt disorientated again. Did I have any friends at work? Does everyone have friends at work? What is the difference between a friend and a colleague? I wanted to say sheepishly “I hope so” but my awkward extended silence prompted a succeeding question, more merciless than the first “are you friends with any colleagues on Facebook?” Not only do us mere mortals have a physical social life and a digital social life to contend with, but nowadays, once we step one foot onto the career ladder, we have to professionally keep up appearances online and offline.

Feeling totally perplexed I decided to investigate, beginning of course with the most fundamental of research tools- the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary informed me that “a colleague is a person with whom one works in a profession or business.” Great, so everyone working in the office is my colleague. Got it. However, even the dictionary seemed a little flummoxed when defining a “friend” as there are ten options, four of which, are relevant to this discussion:

1. A person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations

2. A person who is not an enemy or opponent; an ally

3. A familiar or helpful thing

4. A contact on a social networking website

While I’m sure the Oxford dictionary would declare neutrality in the great colleague vs. friend debate, for arguments sake, let’s delve into the contextual depths of these four definitions by applying them to one of my own office relationships. So, a colleague, Ally and I have a “bond of mutual affection” for fashion. Daily, we enjoy sharing and comparing our favourite images and articles from fashion blogs and magazines. Our conversations tend to rotate solely around fashion. As when conversing outside our common interest or work related issues, the gentle hum of the photocopier enters to fill awkward silences. Ally is six years my senior in all departments- age, trendiness, career, conversation, etc. We share neither familial nor sexual relations. Depending on the project we could be working together as allies or pitching against each other like enemies. At times, a stapler is more familiar and more helpful than Ally and while we consistently follow each other on Pinterest, we are not friends on Facebook. A friend or a colleague? Not sure? Me neither.

Taking my investigation further, I asked different acquaintances for their views on colleagues and friendships in the workplace. Generally, I received similar feedback; an office friendship is not uncommon but highly valued and can only be conceived when each of these qualities apply to a working relationship:

Empathy and Respect – No competition for position

Common Interest outside office assignments

Meet socially outside the office

If you have found a colleague or colleagues which meet all three of these professional-friendship requirements, then you have the golden ticket to a fantastic friendship. One person described his professional friendship with his friend as “the best marriage- you understand each other professionally and socially, each of you want the best for your careers, you can bitch about the office, bitch about your partner, meet for a drink and at the end of the day you always go home to your own space.”

In the social media world, professional-friendships are of equal importance but built on more fluid foundations. If using social media within a professional community always remember to respect the company culture and adhere to the same company policies, formalities and boundaries that you would in the physical world. And when in doubt, use the New York Times rule applied by Erin Grotts, Director of Internal Communications at Supervalu:

“We tell people not to post anything that would embarrass you or the company…Would you be comfortable if it ran on the front page of the New York Times?”

As my office landscape is beginning to look a little less blurred and my disorientating questions have been answered, I have decided on a new-spring-resolution to “treat colleagues as I would like to be treated.” The professional friendship market does not welcome the employee who publicly shames a co-worker to intimidate them into action, or, the employee who vindictively overthrows another or the employee who writes something out of anger, spite or personal vendetta. Warren Buffett, a legendary businessman and widely regarded as one of the most successful investors in the world is also famed for this quote-

“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

And if intelligence and energy don’t kill you and all the integrity, guidelines and boundaries fail you, get in with the smokers. You may have to sacrifice your health but the smoking group is a tight knit community in all offices. Colleagues instantaneously become friends when sharing a lighter!

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