When the lines between “work-friends” and “real-friends” get blurred, you risk creating awkward workplace situations or even serious hurdles to getting your job done. Yet if you’re friends with coworkers on social media, or have spent the past year with them on constant video calls, you probably know a lot more about your coworkers compared to the traditional “business professional” relationship. On the one hand, my boss can see all my tweets. On the other, I can see their children running on screen to ask for a snack.
Every relationship needs boundaries. Here’s how to draw the line between coworkers and friends so that everyone feels as comfortable as possible at work.
Assess your own boundaries first
We’ve previously covered how to set different kinds of personal boundaries, which largely comes down to knowing yourself and effectively articulating what you need. If you struggle to envision what setting boundaries looks like in conversation, consider this exercise from Andrea Brandt Ph.D. in Psychology Today:
Get a sheet of paper and draw three vertical lines to form four columns. Title the first column “Significant Other,” the second “Family,” the third “Friends,” and the fourth “Acquaintances/Strangers.” Now, write down the subjects you’re uncomfortable discussing with the people in these four categories. For example, you might put “sex life” under things you’re not comfortable talking about with your family and strangers, or “childhood trauma” under all four categories.
In addition to what you communicate, you could also list out how and where you communicate. For instance, don’t be afraid to tell your coworkers that you don’t feel comfortable texting and would prefer to keep communication in workplace channels, like email and Slack. Once you know what your boundaries are, it’ll be easier to assert them with the people around you.
Clarity is key
In order to have people respect your boundaries, you need to express what they are. In Psychology Today, Tim Leberecht, author of business self-help book The Business Romantic, wrote about the rise in work friendships where “everyone knows perhaps a little too much about each other:”
While friendships at work can be good for mental well-being (not the least because workplaces are crucial venues for combatting the loneliness epidemic), there is a dark side to it, too. Navigating this complex territory requires emotional intelligence and clear, open communications. This is particularly true when a friend becomes your boss or your boss your friend, or other changes occur to underlying power structures. Experts advise to acknowledge them quickly.
Perhaps the benefit of knowing “a little too much about each other” is a newfound openness in how we communicate at work. Using this, you can directly address the fact that you have certain boundaries and expectations for workplace relationships. You don’t have to sacrifice kindness for clarity, either. When you explain your boundaries to your coworker, you can assure them that it’s not personal (even if it is).
We’re not robots (yet)–you should be able to talk about weekend plans, kids, and shared interests with your coworkers. However, one you start talking about your feelings, trash-talking other people at work, or asking for non-work related advice, you’ve ventured out of safe-work-friend territory. When that happens, be clear about scaling the conversation back to “work-first” topics.
Oversharing isn’t limited to smalltalk. If you’re concerned about remaining professional, you probably want to keep your social media accounts private and separate from your work life. Even if nothing you post could be deemed inappropriate, it’s a matter of how well others feel they know you (sort of like a parasocial relationship, huh).
Don’t over listen, either
You might have a clear idea about what you will and will not discuss at work, but that doesn’t mean everyone around you has the same boundaries. Here are some of our tips for what to do when a colleague overshares. Even if you pride yourself for being a good listener, it’s important to set boundaries with someone who treats you like a therapist.
Katie Bennett, co-founder and certified coach at Ama La Vida Coaching, told Bustle that when someone tries to pry, it’s best to be honest and say something like “Thank you for asking, but I would rather not talk about that at the moment.” Otherwise, you risk misleading your coworker about the nature of your relationship.
Recognise the relationship for what it is
The category of “work friends” is valuable in its own right. Amy Cooper Hakim, a consultant at The Cooper Strategic Group, told Business News Daily to “ask yourself if you’d be close with this person outside of work…if the answer is no, then tread carefully.” You can genuinely enjoy spending time with coworkers, but “recognise it for what it is–a friendly relationship at work.”
From the perspective of someone who does want to form more real friendships in the workplace, writer Ali Kelley stresses the importance of “meeting people where they are, instead of where they might be.” Coworkers can make the workday bearable, or even enjoyable–but sometimes that’s where the relationship ends. For Kelley, and for many of us, that means understanding–and respecting–the label of “coworkers” over “friends.”
The hardest part about setting boundaries at work is drawing lines around where exactly they should be. If you’re afraid of coming across as rude to your coworkers, blame it on your definition of what a coworker relationship means to you. (This means you should probably come up with your definition of what a coworker relationship means to you).
You can love spending time with your work friends while still asserting that you’d like to keep the friendship on a 9-5 schedule. Perhaps the work friendship will one day bloom into something more, but if that’s not for you, don’t be afraid to respectfully keep these relationships right where they are.