A group of young workers sitting around a laptop with coffees laughing and joking, symbolising work friendships.
Image: © fizkes/Stock.adobe.com

Are your work friendships holding you back?

30 Nov 2022

Hays’ Robby Vanuxem explains the challenges of navigating workplace friendships and how they could hamper your career progression.

Most of us spend far more time with our work colleagues than we do with our friends and family. Therefore, it’s no wonder that we become good friends with the people that work both with and for us – even our bosses.

Many of us often make lifelong friendships at work. But, while that may be a great thing for improving your happiness at work and even making us feel more fulfilled, could these friendships be inadvertently acting as a barrier to career progress?

There are plenty of statistics out there indicating how typical it is for many of us to develop friendships with co-workers – according to a 2013 report, more than a third of adults have met at least one of their closest friends at work.

But what if you were to be offered a job elsewhere – the chance to make that big step in your career you’ve been dreaming of for years?

Naturally, you’ll want to take up the opportunity. But on the other hand, you may feel guilty about leaving your work friends behind. Maybe you’re scared that they’ll feel you’ve betrayed your friendship if you leave them?

Advantages of having friends at work

Research in the UK from 2019 found that of those who did make meaningful friendships at work, more than seven in 10 said it made them enjoy their job more.

In addition, 38pc said they can always rely on such friends if anything goes wrong, and a similar percentage – 36pc – said it made getting out of bed in the morning much easier.

None of these findings should be greatly surprising. Friendships in any context – never mind just at work – can make us feel happier and more fulfilled. After all, as humans, we need to feel that we belong, as if we are part of a tribe.

Friendships with colleagues can also make us feel a higher level of job satisfaction, less impacted by stress and they can even assist you in setting boundaries and adapting to change too.

Do you feel guilty about changing jobs?

This can be a common feeling for many people who are considering making a job switch due to the loyalty that they may feel to those they have made friends with at their current workplace.

If you have felt or are feeling such pangs of guilt yourself, it’s important to reframe your thinking on this situation – otherwise, your work friendships could be effectively holding you back from making real progress with your career.

Yes, most of us can probably relate to that feeling of sadness that comes when a colleague who is also a close friend confirms they are leaving the business.

But that shouldn’t make you feel so loyal to your co-workers that you find it unimaginable to ever leave the company yourself – and you certainly shouldn’t feel that leaving your present employer would constitute ‘turning your back on’ or ‘betraying’ your friends.

The fact is that no matter how close you may be to friends at your current workplace, there can also be very good reasons to move on. The chance may arise for you to jump up to a role that might not be open to you at your present employer, for example, or even to expand your skillset or experience a different culture in another part of the world.

So, don’t see your friendships at work as a barrier to your progression, see them as a positive force in your work life – one that has made your experience at work more fulfilled and happier – and one that will continue to be a positive force once you move on to pastures new.

So, once you’ve found your exciting new role, here’s how to tell you work friends and handle your impending exit well.

Always tell your boss first

Telling your boss first will enable you to agree on how the news will be communicated more widely throughout the business, including your friends. It’s also important to leave on good terms, for the simple reason that you never know how your professional paths may cross in the future.

So, make an appointment to speak with your boss privately, disclosing the news that you have decided to leave.

Then, tell your co-workers – closest friends first

If you’re friends with someone at work, there’s a good chance that you’ve already discussed with them your feelings towards your current job, and possibly even your intention to leave. It may not therefore be a huge shock to them when you do resign.

Once you’ve notified your boss that you’re leaving, you’ll be able to reveal the news to your colleagues, and it’s a good idea to start with those old friends who may already suspect you’ve been thinking about leaving.

Consider meeting them outside the office – such as when going for lunch – to tell them the news. When you do, focus on what excites you about the opportunity ahead, and try to remain professional and committed right until your last day.

Be careful about what you share

Not all work friendships are exactly the same. While some of the friends you have in the workplace may feel like confidantes that you can share more-or-less anything with, others may be ‘frenemies’ who could later compromise you if you say the wrong thing in private – such as complaints about the boss or about how you “can’t wait to get out of here”.

Tell your work friends that you will keep in contact

And even more importantly, keep your promise. Remind them, too, that your paths may cross professionally again – which is especially likely if you’re still in the same industry or in the same city.

Whether or not you make any particular attempt to remain in touch with old friends, you might encounter them again at other companies, trade shows or conferences and you will want to keep all potential future opportunities open to you.

Continuing to maintain friendships with those that you no longer work with could also help to keep your broader professional network strong.

Don’t overthink their reactions

Some of your friends at work will be genuinely excited for you, while others may be resentful, and others may feel that you’ve abandoned them. Any such adverse feelings will pass in time, as they adjust and get used to the fact that you’re not going to be around as much.

Remember that the ability to adapt to change is something we all need in our personal and professional lives alike – so be sure to remain compassionate and helpful towards each other.

That should include transferring clients and projects to your co-workers in as seamless and stable a way as possible, so that everyone will be able to manage the transition of your exit gracefully.

Always remember that if your friends at work are true friends, your friendships with them will last long after you’ve left the business, and that they should also genuinely want the best for you. So, don’t let your work friendships hold you back from making the right decisions for your career.

By Robby Vanuxem

Robby Vanuxem is the managing director of Hays Belgium. A version of this article originally appeared on the Hays’ blog.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading