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Friends with work benefits

Are your work friends also your real friends? Here are tips to set boundaries and know your limits.

Jen Weigel

March 28, 2011

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Do you keep your work friends and your life friends separate? Are there advantages to blending the two?

"Ninety-eight percent of people say they find their friends at work," says Terry R. Bacon, author of "The Elements of Power — Lessons of Leadership and Influence" (AMACOM Books, $27.95). "At the same token, the vast majority has a relatively small circle of friends."

Bacon says 55 percent of people polled for his book have between five and nine close friends, while 43 percent have between 10 and 14. "People are so busy and barely have time to keep the friends they already have," he explains. "They are being selective about who they bring into that close circle."

"People spend a significant portion of their lives at work, often more time than they spend with family or friends," says Amelia Forczak of HR Solutions, a Chicago-based human resources consulting firm. "While some are interested in becoming real friends with co-workers, others prefer not to mix business with their personal life. It becomes complicated when two work friends view this invisible line differently."

So what do you do when a co-worker is pushing for a closer friendship than you want to have?

If that cubicle neighbor doesn't seem to get the hint that you don't want to include them on that lunch hour away from the office, the experts say to face it head on.

"People need to be honest," suggests Bacon. "Chemistry can't be forced. You just need to say, 'My life is so full right now, I don't think I can take on another close relationship.' They might be hurt initially, but people can take the cues."

And for the co-workers who want to tell you about their relationships or get advice about something incredibly personal, Bacon says you have to set boundaries early in the relationship.

"It's important to be authentic so you keep that respect between each other at the office, but being authentic doesn't mean it's OK to tell your co-worker every single thing that happens to you," says Bacon. "Simply say, 'This makes me uncomfortable,' or 'I prefer not to know the details.' Most people will get it. Being candid is always best."

"If you're thinking about taking on a work friend as a life friend, it's good to takes things slowly," adds Forczak. "When you get to know another person over time, it is easier to feel out where the relationship will go."

A work bond can also increase worker productivity, especially if one of those employees is happy with their career.

"Sixty percent of the workforce is ambivalent," says Forczak. "This means they're basically sitting on the fence when it comes to how they feel about their job. If an ambivalent employee befriends an engaged employee who is positive about his or her position, the ambivalent employee will likely start to feel more positive as well. Friendships at work can be motivating."

"Everybody has a threshold that will be uniquely personal," says Bacon. "People can surprise you if you let them. There's a chance someone may open up to you in a way you didn't expect, and then you find out they are much interesting than you thought. You two might develop a relationship after all."

jweigel@tribune.com