Your Coworkers Are Not Your Friends

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

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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.

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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.

  • Aaliyah

    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!

  • D. G. Anderson

    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.

  • Dasha

    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, 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. 🙂

  • Sharon

    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!

  • fc

    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. 

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  • Mary

    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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  • Donna

    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.

  • Angela C.

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

  • pamela

    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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