by Kathy Razzi
I certainly have been around the block when it comes to working at several different places of employment in my work career. Each one of them has been very rewarding in the sense that I am very proud and privileged to have been acquainted with some wonderful, talented and intelligent people. This is how we learn and grow in the workplace post-college .
Being the ‘A’ personality that I am, and prone to being very outgoing and personable, I made some very close friends at work while employed together. We enjoyed going out to dinners and having drinks off work time. I thought I had friends for life, because we shared in telling each other about our personal lives, and so, in that moment in time, we were very well-connected, comfortable about coming to work each day knowing that we could count on each other as friends, not just complacent co-workers. Would we continue our relationships after leaving the company? In my experience, no matter how outgoing you are, or how well-connected you think your friends at work are, it’s rarely the case that you will maintain friendships with the people you used to work with. I say, “rarely” but not impossible.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I had the fortunate experience of being cast in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” at Pheasant Run Playhouse in St. Charles, Illinois. (I played Fred’s wife.) We did 12 shows and really bonded together. After the last show and cast party, one of the mothers, who was also in the show with her daughter, dropped me off at my home in Wheaton. As we were hugging each other, crying and saying our good-byes, we vowed to get together sometime soon. The mother looked at me and said something I will never forget, “Yes, dear, it’s like saying we will get together ‘for tea’ sometime. I was a little bewildered by that comment. However, she was very wise because in the end, we never saw each other again after that night. We never got together “for tea.” I learned that friendships that survive common grounds such as the workplace, school, or being one of actors in a play together, are to be cherished indeed.
As human beings, most of us still have a tendency to be personable with each other – not necessarily – personal, with our co-workers in this day and age. For instance, many of us may still feel the need to “check-in” with our colleagues and peers once in a while to make sure that we are not overreacting to adverse work situations when our emotions might be clouding our better judgment. I’m glad because most of us who work on computers for a living, can easily become very isolated sitting in front of one all day like a horse with blinders on.
We are not robots. There are times I am actually rather shocked at myself for getting upset or even having a feeling of elation. I don’t think it’s normal to feel shocked about it. I remind myself that I’m still a human being and I’m going to experience these emotions no matter what kind of work I do – no matter what kind of lifestyle, single or committed. Conversely, I feel good when I have had a nice chat in the lunchroom with a co-worker, of which our subject of conversation had nothing to do with work. That’s normal. Afterward, I feel at ease and good about working with this co-worker. We’ve learned how to freely converse with each other. Working quietly on a computer all day long, does little or nothing to aid in the art of conversation with other human beings. It’s good to force that isolating door open once in a while, and promote good karma.
In my early college days, I had a full-time job at a small Ma & Pa company in Glenn Ellyn. There were only about 12 of us, including the owner. One of the young fellows in the photo lab was so quiet, and kept to himself, that when he did greet anyone, it was a major event.
One day, and I don’t recall how we found out, (not by him, of course) that he was married and had 2 children! Who could keep that a secret at work? I asked him why he didn’t want any of us to know he had his own family and he just rolled his eyes quietly. I knew immediately what he meant. With only 12 people working at that place, on a full-time basis, the atmosphere became a toxic, gossipy haven of back biters. To make matters worse, the owner was the instigator!
I don’t want to get too close to anyone at work either. It’s not because I don’t like my co-workers. It’s because I do like them. Could this be an age-related thing? Maybe. Maybe I’m just wise enough to foresee the pitfalls due to my work experience from retrospect. Well, so what if you go out for a drink after work with a co-worker – just one time. Will there be consequences? Maybe. Once you have become more personal with that co-worker, you have now taken the work relationship to a different level.
So I ask, should we treat each other at work like we are one, big, happy family? Should we be buddies? Should we go out together? The workgroup that plays together, stays together? Not to sound wishy-washy, but I think there is a balance to maintain. I don’t want to flat out say, no. I think one should exercise caution though, because if you don’t, the moment that there is the slightest dispute on the job or some personal ripple, you will have crossed the line between your job and your friendship. And when your paycheck becomes threatened, all bets are off. You will invariably defend your job!
Here’s what Helen Jaworski-Lang, writer for The Independent (U.K.), has to say in her article entitled, “Danger: friends at work”: “The trick, according to Dr Jan Yager, sociologist and author of Friendshifts: the Power of Friendship and How it Shapes our Lives is not to confide in the first place. ‘Don’t tell a work friend anything that could have an impact on your job or give your colleague power over you,’ she says. ‘Sabotage of a promotion may be unintentional, but it’ll hurt.’”
In the same article, Jaworski-Lang writes, “According to Judy James*, many work friendships have the same effect as a sexual relationship between two colleagues. ‘They can screw up the dynamics of an office in that they create a similar tribal situation to that which occurs in the school playground. Two people who become close can be perceived as one much stronger unit and create an imbalance that becomes a problem for everyone else.’
Judy James adds, ‘So you may well be left feeling isolated and lonely – and the same goes if your social life revolves around work and you move to another job. The chances are you will lose those friends when you leave,’ says James. ‘The trick is not to let work become the centre of your universe. And don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Underneath the gloss, you may find you don’t have that much in common after all. Always try to maintain friends outside the office.’
So can a work friend never be a true friend? According to Dr Yager it takes three years to test any friendship and ‘a workplace friendship won’t really have been tested enough unless one of you has to relocate, but be warned; typically friendships at work turn out to be based on convenience.’”
Is this the recession pressure? Is it due to insecurity on my part? Or is it due to my own experience on the job that I say this? I like to think it’s the latter.. a keen observation I’ve noted through the years reinforced by Judy James and Dr. Yager.
I’m not saying I know it all. As long as I am working with fellow human beings, I’m sure I have a lot more to learn. My advice is to maintain a good balance between being cordial and professional – so that you maintain your humanity while upholding working career. (Note the order.) This way, you don’t set yourself up for disappointment when that former co-worker doesn’t show up for tea.
*Judy James author of The Office Jungle