Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | January 28, 2010

I don’t have to ber her friend. I just have to work with her.

Mary is frustrated. She loves her job. She does not like her co-worker Camille. She cannot put her finger on the exact problem. She tolerates Camille, but she has as little to do with her as possible. In fact she avoids Camille whenever she can. She tries not to ask Camille questions. When Camille asks a  question, Mary provides the shortest possible answer. Mary explains her relationship with Camille in this way:

I don’t have to be her friend. I just have to work with her.

Mary is wrong.


The word friend describes a relationship between two people. A list of synonyms for the word friend includes:

  • Ally
  • Associate
  • Buddy
  • Colleague
  • Pal

Those are interesting words. They explain what most of us want in our personal relationships. They describe the people that we want to see whenever we can see them. They define the people we want around us. They identify the people who share our interests and preferences.

Look at the list of synonyms again. Look at it this time in the context of Mary and Camille working together. While you are looking at the list, ask yourself an interesting question:

Can Mary and Camille really be effective at work without being allies, associates, buddies, colleagues, or pals?

The answer is no. They need to be workplace friends. Mary and Camille were not hired to work in a vacuum without each other. They were hired to interact, collaborate, and share (i.e., work together). They may be able to do the tasks of their individual jobs, but they cannot be effective without being able to ask questions and share information with each other.

Mary and Camille do not need to go to the movies, the beach, or shopping with each other. They do need to be workplace friends. They do need to be allies, associates, buddies, colleagues, and pals at work.

If you want to see an example of what Mary and Camille need to do, go outside at break time. Stand with the smokers for a few minutes. Watch them interact with each other. They may never go to the beach together, but they look forward to being at work with each other. They share information. They ask questions to understand. They look out for each other. They help each other.

A friendship is based on trust. It depends on frequent two-way communication. It is able to weather the storms of human relationships.

It is easy to spot a friendship. Friends talk to each other in a special voice. It has a unique energy to it. It is spoken with a tone that says, I want to share this with you because I want you to know about it and I want hear what you have to say about it.

A friendship involves a level of sharing that is not present in other kinds of relationships. Friends share special news with each other before they share it with anyone else. Good news or bad news. It does not matter. A friend calls a friend first (outside of family) about special news.

A friendship sparks a special type of eye contact. It is not an, I love you, eye contact. It is an, I am glad to see you and I want to be here with you type of eye contact.

A friendship is based on an understanding that good times are special and bad times will pass. Friends know that they will step on the toes of one another once in a while. They also know that they cannot let disagreements fester. They know that their friendship is more important than any single incident of being right for the sake of being right.

Most importantly, friends look out for each other. They let each other know when something might affect either one of them.

Effective workplace relationships are grounded in collaboration. Collaboration depends on being able to share and learn from mistakes. It involves talking about better ways to do things, sharing experiences, and helping and looking out for the best interests of colleagues. It is not done in a vacuum. It is done with co-workers. It is done with co-workers who want to be in the room together. It is done by people who prefer to err on the side of sharing, not withholding; listening, not rejecting; understanding, not demeaning. It is done through lively debate about business issues that focus on the business issue without becoming personal. It is done with a special ability to let disagreements pass quickly and a desire to get back to looking forward to working with each other. It is done between workplace friends.

The challenge for most organizations is to build and rebuild, workplace friendships between the members of a team. There is never a simple blueprint to this construction project. There are, however, some common techniques that can be used to start work on it.

Getting to Know You: Effective teams find a way to get to know new members and reacquaint old members on a regular basis. They don’t have to play golf. They don’t have to smoke or go to the mountains to sing campfire songs together. They do have to find a way to step back from the pressures of the workplace on a regular basis. It can take place in a few minutes of chit chat before a meeting. It can occur in a spontaneous walk to the break room in the middle of a tense day. It is not an e-mail. It is a habit of taking time to check in with each other without the pressure of a problem or an issue.

Focus on Making Things Happen: Friends do not spend a lot of time talking about what coulda, shoulda or woulda been. They have an uncanny focus on what they can do to make special things happen in special ways. They focus on what they want to accomplish and find ways to help each other accomplish it. When they disagree, they focus their energy on solving the issue at hand, not the person or the personality of their friend.

Values. Ethics. Rules: Friends operate according to a code of conduct that is understood between them. They think it. They breathe it. They live it. They hold each other accountable for it. Unlike personal friends, workplace friends do not assume the principles of their friendship. They do not leave them to chance. They take time to establish a set of behavioral standards between them. They treasure the importance of those standards and work tirelessly to follow them. They make sure that those principles are an integral part of their workplace friendships.

Are the employees in your organization workplace friends? Do some people need to stop pretending that they do not have to be workplace friends? Do certain individuals or groups need to start taking steps to create relationships that will allow them to be workplace friends? Who will take the first step? What is your role in getting the process started?

Mike Deblieux, SPHR, is a Human Resources Consultant. He provides onsite coaching support for supervisors and managers. He presents seminars on people management topics. Mike writes HR Concepts to help HR professionals better understand and use fundamental HR principles. Mike can be reached at



  1. How can you develop a friendship with a Boss who you do not respect? A Boss who is “My way or the Highway”. When you know that what she is asking you to do is illegal?

  2. A manager has a fundamental responsibility to act in an ethical and legal manner. it is very difficult to work for a person who does not understand that principle. An employee in a situation like you describe must make a difficult decision between seeking help or seeking other employment. Continuing to work for under those conditions is neither productive nor healthy.

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