Most days, co-workers Natasha Burke and Zipporah Dvash spend their time together at the office. But as fast friends, the two also have a tight social life away from work. They've attended weddings, bar mitzvahs and dinners together. Dvash has even tried to set her colleague up on dates.
"We're a classic example of how friendships can be successful at work," says Dvash, 51, a public affairs director at the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. Burke, 34, handles community affairs. "Each of us has a vested interest in helping the other do well. We help each other. It's made our jobs so much easier."
Many employers are looking to build interoffice friendships in light of mounting research showing that strong social connections can boost productivity and have a positive effect on company profitability.
People who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged with that work, according to research by Tom Rath, author of Vital Friends: The People You Can't Afford to Live Without, which is based in part on interviews by The Gallup Organization. Gallup research shows that close friendships at work boost employee satisfaction by almost 50%.
But there can be downsides. Employees can resent a friend who later becomes a manager, a friendship can turn sour and spoil workplace morale, and employees looking to get away with doing less work may use friends to cover for them when they're away from the office, according to Michael Jalbert, president of MRINetwork, a search and recruitment organization based in Philadelphia.
"Co-workers who spend a lot of time socializing aren't doing work. Problems may develop if one friend is promoted," Jalbert says. "Many companies try to create a family-like support at work, but it can interfere. It's really a huge danger. Many people who are friends also find it hard to give unbiased criticism. Supervisors who become friends with subordinates can create jealousy and a sense of unfairness at the office."
Building stronger teams
While some employers do frown on office friendships, many today are seeking to foster closeness among co-workers as they turn to more team-based work groups.
Consider Deloitte & Touche. The professional services firm is putting together a film festival, which will result in videos created by employees about working at the company. Those videos then will be used for recruiting. The program is being used as a team-building initiative to foster camaraderie and bring together the multigenerational staff. More than 630 teams and thousands of Deloitte employees (one to seven individuals per team, including employees of different ages and backgrounds) have registered to create the films.
"It's strengthening relations of people who work together," says Paul Parker, chief people officer at Deloitte. "We foster a very inclusive culture because we really have to team up a lot. You will always give more effort if you care about the people you work with."
But when it comes to workplace friendships, there can be pitfalls. Among them:
•Slacking off. Friendships can cause employees to overlook or not report bad behavior. Nearly a third of U.S. workers have witnessed co-workers engage in unethical conduct, according to a survey on workplace ethics by Hudson, a professional staffing firm. However, only half of those witnessing unethical or illegal acts reported it to anyone in authority. The survey is based on a national poll of 2,099 U.S. workers and was compiled by Rasmussen Reports, an independent research firm.
It's a situation that Neil Gussman has seen firsthand. While a college student many years ago, he worked at a loading dock. But Gussman, who now works at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a non-profit in Philadelphia devoted to the chemical and molecular sciences, remembers how friendships allowed employees to cover for each other on the job.
Longtimers who had become good friends would do a host of things to slack off: One employee would go into the bathroom and read the newspaper for 20 minutes, he said, while a friend acted as a lookout in case a supervisor came by. They would also take empty boxes out and nap inside them while a co-worker kept lookout.
"The other guy would bang on the door to wake him up," Gussman says. "They were very proud of getting away with things."
•Boundary issues. Employees who become friends on the job may share too much personal information about themselves, which can then come back to haunt them if a colleague is promoted or shares the personal details with others —— much like the meltdown between Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. The White House intern's sexual affair with President Clinton came to light after she shared details with her Defense Department co-worker. Tripp secretly recorded telephone conversations with Lewinsky.
Supervisors also may see employees who are close friends as more prone to being gossipers.
Ken Siegel of Beverly Hills, a psychologist and president of the Impact Group, a psychologists' group that consults with business management, says he doesn't believe workplace friendships are real. True friendships, he says, can't exist when there are issues such as money and status at play.
"It's a myth, desired but not achievable. When you inject money and power into the equation, it changes things. Friendships at work are an oxymoron," Siegel says. "People try to create workplace friendships out of their own vulnerability, and the more companies talk about friendships at work, the less real it is."
More satisfied employees
But research also shows there are measurable upsides. People with three close friends at work were 46% more likely to be extremely satisfied with their jobs and 88% more likely to be satisfied with their lives, according to the research in Vital Friends, which is based on more than 5 million interviews conducted by Gallup. Those with a best friend at work also have fewer accidents at work and are more engaged with customers.
"There are disadvantages (to work friendships)," author Rath says. "But what we see, time and time again, is when people say they have a best friend at work, they're engaged on the job. Organizations can do a much better job at creating an environment that supports having a best friend at work."
Friendships can also ease the strain of grueling work pressures. P.J. Gurumohan, 29, became good friends with Killian McKiernan, 27, while the two were students at Arizona State University and working together at a patent-licensing office. As their friendship grew, so did their interest in continuing to work together. The two started their own company, Genwi.com, a social-networking media website, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Making their start-up work means putting in Herculean hours, but both attribute their ability to build their fledgling company because they are fast friends and are able to tolerate long stretches of time together.
They often get into lengthy conversations about economics, politics and history, and sometimes take a break to play chess.
"There can be challenges, because sometimes we need space. It's very intense. But we can read each other's minds," McKiernan says. "The trust is there. If his car breaks down, I'll come and get him. We operate in a way we couldn't if we hadn't been friends. If there's a fight, we can come back together."
Fifty-seven percent of executives polled said that office productivity improves when co-workers are friends outside of the office. Nearly two-thirds of employees surveyed agreed, according to a survey by Menlo Park, Calif.-based staffing firm Accountemps. But managers and employees aren't as aligned when it comes to just how beneficial it is to have buddies on the job: 22% of employees said befriending co-workers has a "very positive" impact on productivity, while only 2% of managers felt as strongly.
Friendship on the job is the motto at Kaye/Bassman International, a recruiting firm based in Plano, Texas. CEO Jeff Kaye says the organization has half a dozen employees who are married to each other, as well as brothers and sisters. When his chief operating officer got married to another employee, the CEO served as the best man. Also, a number of employees went together on a Caribbean cruise.
Kaye says employees are better able to handle confrontations or disagreements when they are friends. He also says it builds trust, creates high-performance teams and makes workers feel that they want to go to work, rather than begrudgingly feeling that they have to be at work.
"The more open, friendly places are the best places to work," Kaye says. "If you don't have that, when you go to work, you put on this work mask and the authentic self only exists outside of work. That's sad. Being yourself and having friends at work creates a more fulfilled life and greater productivity."