Businesses are starting to clue into what every kid who’s ever frequented a playground knows well: Daily life is easier when you’ve got friends around.
"When colleagues can traverse acquaintance status and move into the friend realm," leadership consultant Jessica Amortegui wrote for Fast Company last year, "their motivation deepens. A halfhearted effort means much more than a dissatisfied customer or disappointed manager. It means letting down a friend." And not only do work friends make us more productive and motivated, there’s growing research to suggest they’re also crucial for our happiness and well-being.
Sometimes though, your work friendship may have run its course and you need to find a way to end it. The reasons why can vary, from moving to a management position, to interests or lifestyles that grow apart. But whatever the reason, here’s what you need to consider if you're trying to dump a work friend.
For all the experimentation around flat organizations, the truth is that the vast majority of employees have bosses. No matter how chummy you are with yours, there’s a power dynamic there. And power dynamics generally aren’t great for friendships.
Workplace friendships "can become problematic if one employee is in a supervisory position over the other," says Nannina Angioni, a labor and employment attorney with the Los Angeles–based law firm Kaedian LLP. "When colleagues are seen as too close for a professional relationship, it can create animosity among a team at the low end, or possibly expose the employers to an employment claim on the more extreme end."
There are other reasons, of course, to want to end a work friendship than either the appearance or the actual likelihood of favoritism (or any other type of wrongdoing), but she has a point: Some bosses will ask or pressure you to do unethical things, and cite your friendship as the reason why you should comply.
"The process for changing this sort of relationship dynamic can be tricky," Angioni concedes, but if you need to pull back from a friendship where you’re on the low end of a power differential, "the best place to start is to always default to your employment obligations." As John Rampton, founder of Due (an online invoicing company) has pointed out, "success at the expense of your integrity" is one thing you definitely don’t owe your boss, and it's a perfectly reasonable place to draw the line—without sounding accusatory.
"Listen, I know we’re friends," you can say, "but this could really jeopardize that promotion you know I’ve been gunning for. You understand, right?" If they don’t, well, that’s what HR departments and, ultimately, attorneys like Angioni are there for.
It’s usually easier to wind down a friendship when you’re the one in a higher position, of course. But you can explain the situation in similar terms, even when your roles are switched. "If your job is important to your livelihood and you value your position with the company," Angioni adds, "you don’t want it to seem that you're favoring your friend over other colleagues." Simply pointing that out can help make it less personal and more about the circumstances.
If the boss-employee relationship makes it easier to back out of a friendship by pleading, "It’s not you, really," then what about when you’re peers within your company? How do you dump a work friend when it really is just them that’s bugging you?
Chris Navalta, an account supervisor at the PR firm Blanc & Otus, found himself in this type of predicament in a previous job:
The office was really small, so everyone was intertwined with each other’s lives. There was one particular person who I got along really well with as a coworker. But I realized that he was interested in having that spill over into a friendship. He would always bug me about playing soccer on Saturdays—which wasn’t even my game—[and] playing poker or video games after work.
But Navalta just wasn’t interested. So he tried politely keeping his distance—declining repeated invitations, giving excuses, emphasizing his commitment to his home life—but his overzealous office buddy "just didn’t take the hint."
"It’s difficult to end friendships at work, because you still have to work with that person," Navalta acknowledges. "So I tolerated it for the four years I was there." Finally, after accepting another position and still getting plagued with offers to hang out, Navalta simply unfriended his annoying former coworker on Facebook.
Today, Navalta is the first to admit that approach was less than ideal, but he felt at the time that his "hand was forced," and it’s hard to blame him. "In hindsight, I should have established boundaries at the start."
How? Angioni suggests leveling with the coworker whose friendship you’re trying to retreat from. "Try to get the friend to understand that dialing it back is good for her or him as well."
You could cite professional reasons like workplace politics. For instance: "It’s great grabbing lunch with you once in a while, but I'm worried it might put a strain on our team if our other coworkers notice us eating together every single day. I don't want anyone to feel excluded."
Or you could point to productivity: "You know how we’ve been so swamped with that new project? It might be good for both of us to spend a little more solo time in the trenches chipping away at it."
The bottom line is that if your friendship developed because you work together, you can usually use work as the same rationale for stepping it back. Navalta is right: You still do have to work together. So the best approach is to have a conversation with the person you need or want to see less of, and emphasize that. This way you can both get back to business—which is why you’re there in the first place.