Friendship and work: A good or bad partnership?

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:

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