“Friendships are an incredibly important part of the workplace cultural environment where people are able to emotionally buy into it and own it,” says international leadership coach Karen Gately.
“When we feel a deep sense of belonging and friendship with the people we work with every day, we’re more likely to invest, we’re more likely to strive to do well and we’re more likely to support our colleagues,” she continues.
However, while several studies have shown that having a best friend at work can increase productivity and overall engagement, it’s also clear that some friendships can be more sinister.
“Employers should want workplace friendships but only the ones which are kept in their place,” says Gately. “They can quickly become a problem when they’re encouraging unacceptable workplace behaviour like skiving off, wallowing in misery, gossiping or just generally being unproductive.”
If a close workplace friendship becomes destructive, HR has a responsibility to step in – but doing so without being seen as the ‘fun police’ can be a difficult task.
Gately, who’s an expert in building effective teams and positive company cultures, says employers should reframe the issue so it’s not necessarily about the friendship.
“Those behaviours are unacceptable and whether they’re committed by friends or by an individual is irrelevant,” she says. “It’s the behaviour that has to stop, not the friendship.”
Gately says HR should remind employees that – first and foremost – they’re here to behave in a way that enables the best possible outcome for shareholders, customers and the employees themselves.
“If a friendship is holding employees back from serving those people faithfully and its preventing them from being the best possible version of ourselves, then it’s a problem.”
While some workplace friendships have a positive impact on productivity, others end up being a major distraction – for HR, the issue lies in controlling those which cause a problem and encouraging the ones which keep employees happy.