Coworkers or Friends? 4 Criteria

the-office-entire-castYou and your coworkers are sitting in some bar in a business hotel in Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Chicago, unwinding after a long day of activities. As you find yourself enjoying the easy ambience, inside jokes, and shared experiences built up through the years you realize that you much prefer sitting here with them than watching Monday Night Football alone up in your room. Then the question hits you.

Are these my coworkers or my friends?

The conventional notion is that there are healthy boundaries between work, home and social life. The fear of spending too much time at work so makes some of us uncomfortable even speaking of work friendships as if it underscores our lack of personal balance. So, do coworkers only become friends if I choose to engage with them outside of a work setting? Should I feel guilty having relationships not shared by my spouse or the rest of my family? As men and women become broadly accepted as workplace peers can the emotional complications of a “work wife” or “work husband” be managed with teammates of the opposite sex?

And really, aren’t most of my coworkers just that…coworkers? Sure, but some work relationships will rise to such a level of familiarity as to demand a more thoughtful place within our emotional furnishings. How do you know which ones? As I think back on the colleagues that have built themselves into my life four recurring features come to mind:

Wishes you well for your sake

Many individuals may wish you well but, to borrow from Aristotle, the real friend is the person that “when he wishes a person good, wishes it for that person’s own sake.” A colleague is interested in my well-being not for whatever good it might do for him or the firm, but simply because he wants the best for me. The rules of fiduciary responsibility are not waived among colleagues. They must be hired, promoted, terminated, managed and followed as circumstances require, just like any other individual. But the true colleague exerts the effort to mind the inevitable tensions responsibly on behalf of both the firm and the friend’s well-being.

Takes you seriously

My work-friends respect me both as a professional and as a person. That means my contributions and opinions are appreciated but not patronized. Colleagues can and do disagree. After all, the old maxim is largely true, if two business people always agree one of them is unnecessary. But my perspective is requested, evaluated, supported when deserving and rejected when not. Mark Twain joked “the proper office of a friend is to side with you when you are in the wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are in the right.”

Not colleagues. Since they truly wish me well they both compliment and correct, encourage and dissuade as business reality demands. But all is done with an eye to building me up.

Is honest, but not necessarily blunt

We must always count on workplace honesty, but a work-friend will add to truth-telling a sense of candor and timing. A colleague never tells us an untruth, but neither does she feel obligated to tell us every true thing she thinks at the moment she thinks it. However valuable a golf tip, few of us would want it shouted out during our backswing. So it is with work colleagues who, by virtue of the fact that they spend so much time with us, can engage the right moments for the right discussions.

My son is a poet and he describes workshops in which new poems are shared among other writers. The first reading is always done by someone other than the author of the poem. It allows the poet to hear his work presented back to him in someone else’s voice. It is a beautiful description of the work of a colleague. He takes your own story and speaks it back to you at the time when you are ready and able to hear and discern it. Because he is your colleague he, better than anyone, knows when those moments are likely to present themselves.

Enjoys company, respects boundaries

Work-friendships are usually bounded by the workday at the office, factory, or shop. It makes being colleagues complicated and hard because those boundaries are real and important to home and family life. Work-friendships should be celebrated but never to the point that they diminish family relationships and responsibilities. Workplace friendships are also naturally burdened by organizational hierarchy, company fiduciary responsibility or departmental boxes which must be respected. It is not surprising, then, that among our many co-workers only a few rise to true work-friends.

But arrayed against those complications is the powerful fuel of shared experience. Business teammates often speak of having “been in the trenches” with each other and while it is trite to compare work with combat, the battle tempering of friendships is real. Some of the most powerful words spoken into my life have been from colleagues, and those words came out of an abiding affection for me built from common purpose. How sad if I had avoided, rather than pursued those work relationships.

It is this very peculiar nature of work friendships that should make them important and intentional. But most of all, the potential power of work-friendships should also cause us to communicate them to our spouse and family so that in our transparency we can reduce the mystery of the office and connect the emotional dots in a way that helps us all understand and enjoy each other.


Write down the names of the first two or three people that come to mind when you think about “work-friendships”. Then run through the four criteria and see how many fit. Are there other characteristics of a work-friend you would add to the list?

Does your spouse or significant other know the names of your work-friends and the important role they play in your life? If not, why?


10 thoughts on “Coworkers or Friends? 4 Criteria

  1. I have spent considerable time mulling this topic over in my mind. I often find myself trying to enforce false boundaries around co-workers, friends and family but I am always conflicted and a bit unclear as to why. The internal philosophical debate often leaves me feeling oddly disconnected from and wary of people that are a significant part of my life.

    It is my belief that the conflicts in my mind are the socialized remnants of a world that no longer exists. The boundaries and ideas we all have in our heads around co-workers are the result of a former rigid work/life divide. These developed in a society where work was a place you went to and was separate from your personal life. I believe it was an unsophisticated and heavy handed way to insulate yourself from the blurry lines that often develop between friends, loyalty, accountability, fun and being placed in unintentionally compromising positions. Today mobility tools, work/life balance, and social media have collapsed that world and it is difficult to isolate yourself in an attempt to avoid complicated relationships.

    My only advice would be to dive into this complex world. The most satisfying relationships in my life invariably blend friendship, family, and work. There still must be boundaries, but create intentional boundaries that help you build a richer personal and work life.

    One test I apply is that when my wife meets these co-worker/friends does she see the tendrils that connect us outside the context of work? If she doesnt know about them from our conversations and never meets them then the question is already answered.

    “Be true to your work, your word, and your friend.”
    ~John Boyle O’Reilly

    When written I believe the poet saw these as three mutually exlusive pledges that a person should make and adhere to. In the context of our discussion, if you read this as one holistic pledge it better reflects the current condition of our work and personal lives.

    • Whoa. You should be the one writing blogs! Great insights and I agree. Part of writing this one was just recognizing that my perspective was a little old school and realizing that in fact work friendships had been powerful in my life and I ought to have put more thought into them. This piece just helped me begin to celebrate them more than I was taught to do when I was a younger man.

  2. Nicely put, John. I was raised in the workplace-designed ethical behavior template guarded by proscriptions, policy and punishment, too. It seems years since those rules applied to me, since I left that world long ago. The best plan is to consciously (as you have described) choose a boundary for each person whether they are colleagues or not. One must consider the person as a whole and make a good selection, keeping in mind that the boundary is likely to change over time. I have personally witnessed sales people, in particular, having trouble with where to draw the line and it is seldom a good outcome. While this one off process is a little tiring, it is certainly less so than discovering that a one-size-fits all boundary has just created a fire storm. And, like every muscle you exercise, you get better at it over time until it becomes second nature. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute!

  3. This is a rich topic. It makes me think about the definition of ‘friend’ (nice use of Aristotle) and what it means to genuinely care for someone. I think one of the reasons work is fulfilling and desirable is that it is in our society the most available way to meet the human need to participate with others in a common endeavour, to be part of a team. Sometimes the team only has two people, sometimes more, though I think there is a natural limit of 8-10 or so; anything bigger becomes an organization that can’t function through immediate, face to face interaction. There are other places to be in a team, of course–sports, war, church, politics–but for most of us it’s work. I could see my own career path as a search for the good team, and the jobs I value are usually the ones that achieved that sense of common purpose with a small group of colleagues. (Did the team have to succeed to be valuable? No, I can think of teams that were a joy to be part of but didn’t end up with the brass ring, though if that happens too often the organization will break you up.)

    These relationships can be very intense, especially when fueled by deadlines and crises and pressure that pull the team together. You can believe that you know and trust your colleague, and he or she knows and trusts you, in a way that perhaps no one else does. This is very satisfying and fulfilling–but is it friendship? Often these feelings fade away when the work is done, or the team breaks up, or your colleague is promoted and is no longer your peer. Still, with some people and some teams the bond persists for years, even a lifetime.

    I sometimes find that I value these workplace ties precisely because they aren’t friendships; they aren’t with people with whom I have the common interests and values and emotional compatibility that makes friendship possible; they’re people who, without the bond of the common work, I would probably have never gotten to know, in fact might have avoided. Being pushed together by a common task made us get past these differences.

  4. John… Thank you for making us pause and reflect on this. I’ve always questioned the label of “work friend”. Isn’t a “work friend” simply a friend met through work and who should be referred to as “friend”? I see two distinct groups, there are colleagues and (work) friends. Personally, over the years I have developed a few close friendships through work and I know that a coworker has become a friend when I feel the need to talk about them at home and if geography allows, introduce them to my husband. When I feel comfortable with those friends met through work who transition from being a coworker to becoming a friend, then I connect to them on FB and open up the windows into our outside-of-work life. That’s been my test lately…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s