Your Coworkers Are Not Your Friends

When a colleague lets you down at work, don't get mad or even. It's nothing personal

Just because professionalism calls for being friendly with everyone, does not mean that everyone is your friend.

I recently had a conversation with a young woman whom I mentor who was very disappointed in a colleague’s behavior. The two, in my mentee’s words, “enjoy a good relationship and are friendly toward one another.” The two were also recently working jointly on a project. My mentee was coordinating with an outside vendor and the colleague was managing the project with a senior level executive internally. Apparently both had casually agreed on their roles as the ground work was being done. When it came time to execute the project, the colleague called the outside vendor (my mentee’s contact) secured the deal and then promptly wrapped up the assignment with the senior level executive. Her reasoning: It was late (6:30pm on a Monday) and my mentee had already left for the day. The colleague didn’t want to disturb her evening. I’m not a sports person, but I believe that’s what they call an intercepted play — or as my mentee saw it, a foul.

[Related: 9-5 and 6-10: How to Find Work-Work Balance]

My mentee was angry for a number of reasons: At her company there are no off hours. Everyone has a BlackBerry and so even if you don’t want to disturb someone with a phone call, texting and e-mail are always appropriate for matters concerning urgent business or communication etiquette.

The other breach was in their perceived friendship. But I firmly reminded my mentee that there are no friends at work! Sure, there are folks with whom you go to lunch, share jokes, and exchange birthday and holiday greetings. There may even be colleagues with whom you share family information (children’s graduations, parent anniversaries, etc.) You may have even invited them to your wedding. But as Renetta McCann, former CEO of advertising giant Starcom MediaVest, reminded me in an interview, in a competitive work environment “a friend today is a foe tomorrow.” The goal for most individuals at work is advancement. How do you achieve that? It’s increasing your visibility, gaining the right exposure and being noticed by the right players inside and outside of your organization. Of course, there are perfectly legitimate and integrity-based strategies for achieving those goals. But for some, it’s accomplished by any means necessary.

Some of these people are quite obvious in behavior. Others you discover in your interaction with them. Will they disappoint you? Certainly! Should you be surprised? Never! Does this mean you should be guarded and paranoid in your place of work? Not at all. You should, however, be clear and deliberate about all your actions and interactions at work. As for my mentee’s colleague — now she knows how her colleague operates. One of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou is, “When people reveal themselves, believe them.” Here are some guidelines for managing relationships on the job:

You may love your job and all the people you work with, but at the end of the day you are in a business environment where the goals of the organization are driven by business decisions.

It is absolutely necessary to build and develop relationships at work. This is not a social exercise. There will be people that you genuinely enjoy and like and colleagues with whom you will develop genuine friendships–that will happen effortlessly. But the goal of building workplace relationships is to accomplish your professional and business goals. Even if you don’t feel this way, know that your colleagues do.

Clearly outline goals and objectives in writing. Instead of verbal discussions, document through e-mails.

Stop getting emotional. If someone has disappointed you, take it as a gift. Now you know how they think and how they operate. Your job now is to be smarter about how you interact with them.

Always act with integrity — even if you feel others with whom you have a relationship don’t.

Sonia Alleyne is an editorial director at Black Enterprise magazine.



39 Responses to Your Coworkers Are Not Your Friends

  1. Aaliyah says:

    I totally agree! I loved my co-workers and would engage in a joke or two or even go out for group dining events but that was it. I trusted people enough to know that they are people. I’m friendly and have integrity but we all have our own bills to pay. I drew the line between work and my personal life and was good about not crossing it. Good advice!

  2. D. G. Anderson says:

    Wow, this article is poignant and so key to what my father would always tell me and my siblings when I was only 16 years old (over 10 years ago). He would always say “you don’t go to work for friends and you do the job and leave.” I always wondered what he meant. He was wise beyond his years. He would always say that you should not get so “common” with people that you let them into your personal life and get your feelings hurt. My dad is a wise man and I thank him for instilling that in me. I have been working since I have been 16, and three degrees later and being gainfully employed, I have held true to what he has said and it has worked. I have had many jobs, but I always left on good terms and not being I got too friendly with the boss and coworkers and we fell out over silly issues. Good article, I will definitely share with him.

  3. Dasha says:

    This is a very interesting point of view and one that many people I think agree with. What’s even more interesting is an article that I read today with an opposing point of view – Why Friends Matter at Work and in Life, http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2010/07/why-friends-matter-at-work-and.html. I think in life you will find that disappointment comes in all forms, but knowing how to handle it and learn from it is what’s truly important. Maybe the take away for me is that it’s ok to have friends at work, but choose them wisely. 🙂

    • Candy Lewis says:

      I totally agree with your statement. I believe it’s OK if you become friends at your job. But a person doesn’t work to make friends but work til make money. If you and a coworker just happen to become friends, than I believe it’s ok. My opinion is it all depends on the job type. I work in the health care and you need to have a friend or to in order to know what’s going in the different jobs.

  4. Sharon says:

    SO ON POINT!! Got a reality check about this same subject two days ago. Lesson learned. This article was just confirmation. Thanks for being obedient and writing it!

  5. fc says:

    We all are naive to certain point but as time goes on we learn things, people at work is there for the same reasons you are to make a living if you both were not being paid you would not be there you only share the same goal in common, getting a job done. Limit your favors to co workers as much as possible if something goes down they are not going to stick out their necks for you, Never take co workers personally because you are associates, not friends. 

    • Grace says:

      This article is so on point,got a perceived promotion and a colleague sees me as notfit because am younger,my slogan “I am at work to make money not friends.”

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  7. Mary says:

    I have an expression, “The people you work with are your co-workers, not your friends.” You can still be cordial and nice without “getting involved”. Also, I have never used the office as a dating service, and never will. I don’t socialize with co-workers – on any level. In fact, I don’t even go to the Christmas party. Go to work, do your job, and then go home.

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  9. Donna says:

    Good article. It’s almost like I heard before, “Every man for himself and God for us all.” Maybe not quite that bad. But corporations tout teamwork and team-building but they do reward and critique individual accomplishment. I realized that a friend at work did not have my back as I had hers “at work.” So yes, watch what you say to whom and don’t get so chummy that you forget where you are.

  10. Angela C. says:

    Wish I memorized this article when I was 20. It would have saved me a great deal of heartbreak.

  11. pamela says:

    I work in a social job and in some of my customers and coworkers mind they have every right to be in your busness. I’m being non friendly and antisocial. That invisable line that I see is so clearly can be a blurred to others.

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  18. Shelly says:

    Wow! I know this was written a long time ago, but this really resonated with me as something similar happened to me recently with a coworker. “Ms Becky’s” excuse was “she forgot to call me.” Like what? I’ve been talking to close friends about how to deal with a situation like this and they’re all saying that there’s literally nothing I can do but learn from it. I love my coworkers, but I’ve def learned from that experience. Thanks for writing.

  19. Uzo says:

    Wonderful and timely article. I learnt this the hard way a few weeks back when I fell Ill and had to go on a sick leave. Not only did I not get any empathy call from my coworkers. ..I was made to work extra for the exact number of days I was away…so painful….

    • cute says:

      So sorry for you,that also what happened to me when I was a cashier @ chicken inn Lusaka road….I learnt a ever good lesson with ppl I relate with

  20. Tgirl7 says:

    I love this topic. After working from home for 15 years at a job with minimal benefits, I was recently hired at a government-oriented type job full-time. Since being so accustomed to no interaction with real people on a daily basis and no one physically looking over my shoulder, I have had to go through a “culture shock” experience with how “real people” behave in today’s work place as opposed to your regular “water cooler office politics” from 20 years ago… Lol. I quickly discovered that most all the details and advice I have read in the above posts are true. No matter how nice or friendly you are, coworkers will indeed “throw you under the bus” in your face or behind your back without blinking. Unless it affects your position in a major way, it is not to be taken personally but just “human nature” and part of this modern-day work culture. I am quickly learning to not be paranoid, stay focused and “keep going and growing” in this high-tech work society.

  21. Doris says:

    Great article, this article is on point.

  22. BellaRosa says:

    This is so true, even in the medical field. I went through this something that changed my whole perspective on people I work with. A person I stood up for that was bullied as she called it and mistreated; turned on me when I was placed in charged. The lies and backstabbing that ensued from her caught me off. She even showed up to my big 40th birthday bash drunk, causing a couple of scenes. I finally learned that some ‘work relationships’ even have to cease. Your article is now being shared with co-workers to show what I’ve been saying for months: we can work together, we do NOT have to be friends! Because I really do NOT want to be their friends to begin with!

  23. Charmaine Stewart says:

    This is all too true. You make your time, do your work even sacrifice your family and stay late to complete work but because you don’t party with them or go and have cocktails after work you are classed as not being a team player – go figure!

  24. C McCurdy says:

    Reading D.G. Anderson’s comments they ring the same to me and what my Mom said. My jobs were always very long term and I worked professionally and contained my personal life for outside with my personal friends. I was friendly but did not indulge in pub lunches etc to be part of the grapevine. My roles were important to me but, as the author points out, work is a business emvironment where one works with integrity. When I arrived at work each day – my personal me stayed at the front door as I entered, my role became me. When I left each evening – I was my personal me again. It worked wonders!!! Don’t get me wrong, the work environment was stressful and I was told most times that I was secretive but I enjoyed my work and it was that that kept me going, to do a good job.

    Brilliant article.

  25. Ceal says:

    As we get older we learn to be more Wiser and gain Wisdom they but keep you on the right path. It’s never to late to learn them both.

  26. cute says:

    Arg!!!wonderful, this is exactly what victims of curcamstance fall for,its good to know when @ work not everyone wishes you well….especially your hand in hand friend…. It’s nice sharing ideas since there some things you can’t handle alone, but my dear share it wisely knowing that ‘once a nail hammered, after pulled off,it lives a big hole….just like you will regret wen you get fooled up”…Be cautious!!

  27. Mystique says:

    I work at home in a Highly Competive Industry where we do not have any interaction with co-workers. The only contact is my manager. I have been with this company 10 years & through long hours & a lot of work on my part, I have built up a great clientele & rating. My problem is what can I do about those who are redirecting the calls that initially come to me? 3 years ago I was targeted and was evicted because of someone’s envy, my calls were being tampered with making it difficult for clients to get through to me. I’ve had clients tell me things that they witnessed on the site as well as their experiences when trying to connect with me through the phone line on the site. I was mortified that people could behave so unjustly & began emailing my manager telling her of the reports I was getting, giving her facts that I would not know (because I do not call myself on that line) I knew something was going on because it was a dramatic assault an idiot could recognize it, my clients knew & could sense what was going on. One actually told me to be careful, as they did the exact same thing to another person on the site & now she isn’t there…nice huh? Arming myself with this knowledge & confronting my boss the company moved the system (not sure what that means) within the first week of doing that I was receiving my calls again problem free & was able to maintain my business. As of 3 weeks ago the company’s “tech” worked on the system, since then I am again being tampered with. My clients are again coming forward telling me the system is saying that person Is not available, when they can see me online showing a green light saying I am available, to my clients waiting in my wait list for a call back from me being dropped by the system! Also I am being dropped by the system when I want to connect with the next person in line waiting to reach me, the system disconnects me during a call right in the middle of it. Is there no law against this? Again to date I have 4 clients that came forward giving me information on what they have been witnessing again. My call volumn has dropped again (thank goodness I have a roommate to share the bills) My thoughts concerning this company have changed dramatically as well as the clients that have witnessed these things done. I don’t trust any of them at all, and I wont kiss up to such people. I have blocked several reps because I do not want to know them. My only choice is to get out or put up with it. I haven’t done anything to anyone that would cause such harm &/or hurt to the extent they have done me. And I am not going to let any of them know how upset I am. The less I speak to them the better, people in such positions that have the ability to cause such harm & damage for no other reason except ENVY that they can’t get the business on their own so they sabatoge the ones that can, and they get away with it.
    I love the client base that I have built up, they have turned into quit a force! And I will take them with me when I go, if there were something I could do legally I would.
    If anyone has any suggestions I would love to hear them. I Will not reveal the companies name…for now ☺

  28. Teresa says:

    I needed to read this. This should b part of our annual training and especially for newcomers…!!! U never treated fairly.

    I have experienced all of the above and it was refreshing to read this and k I not a soft some days. Especially the ones when some do it challenge u. Intergerity

  29. Sylvester says:

    I couldnt agree more with this article. Lessons learned

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  31. Teresa Jimenez says:

    Case in point, the Clinton’s attended the Trump’s wedding….

  32. Teresa Jimenez says:

    Case in point, the Clintons attended the Trump’s wedding….

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