By Michelle Valerio • April 08, 2010•Writers in Residence
My office has a total of 25 employees; only 4 of these employees are men. Since women tend to build relationships by connecting with each other, it’s hard to draw a line between friendships and professional relationships in my office. Although we have smaller cliques within the office, in general everyone is friendly with everyone else, except those women who refuse to develop friendships, even professional friendships, with the other women. Recently I have read several articles cautioning against friendships in the workplace, and while in theory I agree, I have witnessed the following occurrences when people have avoided friendships in my office:
Gossip: If you are not gossiping, you are being gossiped about. Although I do not think office gossip is appropriate, never spending time with the other women in the office, means that you may be out of the loop in terms of what is happening politically in the office. It also creates opportunities for people to gossip about you.
Being the Snob: Women who have chosen not to build relationships with the other women in the office, either by not eating lunch in the lunchroom or by avoiding all but work activities, are seen as snobby. People will be less likely to go out of their way to help you or let you know when the boss is upset if you are viewed as a snob.
Wrong impressions: If you only associate with one or two of the other women in the office, people may develop the wrong impression. The better your co-workers know you, the better they can assist you on a daily basis. For example, your co-workers are the best source for filling you in on important office issues, letting you know when the boss is at work early, or simply recognizing when you are having a bad day and offering to help with your the workload.
On the other hand, I have also encountered the same problems with office friendships:
Gossip: Sharing something in confidence to an office friend outside of work, does not mean they will not share that information with someone at work (even if it is harmless). This includes participating in activities, parties, events etc. that you may not want your boss to know about. For example, you may not want your boss to know you dressed up as a sexy cheerleader for Halloween, but your co-worker might think it is perfectly appropriate to tell him about your costume.
Being a snob: Developing closer relationships with some of the women may cause jealousy and people will accuse you of being a snob. Whenever someone gets married, has a baby shower or birthday party in our office, who is invited is always a matter of controversy. Feelings are hurt and conflicts erupt. Clearly, inviting 25 people and their family members is a costly endeavor. In our office one of the attorneys invited everyone and their families to her own wedding in order to avoid controversy and hurt feelings. She even invited someone who had only been working at our office for two weeks. I wonder if she was unable to invite some of her own family members in order to accommodate the entire office at her wedding.
Wrong impressions: Before I became an associate at my firm I was a summer intern. As an intern, I sometimes ate lunch with the paralegals or staff attorneys. Once I became an attorney, I also became a supervisor. I knew from experience that I did not enjoy eating lunch everyday with my boss, sometimes you need to vent etc., so I stopped eating in the staff lunch room everyday and would often eat with some of the other young associates in the back lunch room. This apparently made our new legal intern feel as though she was being ostracized by the attorneys because we did not “invite” her to lunch. She even complained to our boss who then accused the young associates of “not liking” the legal intern. Although it really shouldn’t matter if you “like” the intern or not, the truth is we did like her, we just didn’t want to eat lunch with the paralegals everyday. By changing our eating location people assumed we were being snobby and developed the wrong impression.
Although it is impossible to make everyone happy and develop friendships with everyone at the office, it is important to understand office politics. If your office is mainly women, like mine is, it’s important to build connections with the other women in the office, even if these connections do not develop into outside of work friendships. I found this blog posting by the author of "Nice Girls Don’t get the Corner Office," Lois P. Frankel, to be very insightful. For me, the most relevant piece of advice was to “clarify workplace rules for truly good friends.” Over the past two years as an associate I have learned (1) to preface private conversations with work friends by asking them not to share the information with co-workers and (2) if I choose not to eat lunch with everyone everyday, to at least stop by their office to say “hello.”