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Drawing the line with work friends

Having buddies at work is a great thing but emotional boundaries must exist to ensure that relationships remain professional and drama-free


DO you have a workplace BFF whom you completely trust and share everything from personal issues to office rants?

Imagine finding out that this buddy of yours is actually the eyes and ears of someone from senior management, and whatever you have said in confidence - harmless or not - has been communicated to the boardroom all these years.

Before you write this off as something that happens only in Korean dramas, this was exactly what happened to career coach Adrian Tan's wife.

Mr Tan, who is the founder of CareerLadder, says that this unfortunate incident is a consequence of not having emotional boundaries at work, and a lesson his wife had to learn the hard way.

While it is important to form good relationships in the workplace, there is also a need to draw clear lines to protect yourself from possible manipulation or other people's toxicity.

Setting boundaries

Setting boundaries is not something most people consciously think about, but it is an important element of self-care, says executive coach and career counsellor Andrew Jones.

"Before you can help others at work and create value, you must attend to yourself," he points out.

This means making a judgement call and deciding what is personal (what you may share) and what is private (what you will not share) in the office.

These perimeters are like the rules of engagement so that everyone knows how to play.

Every solid relationship - be it at work or elsewhere - is built on trust and a certain level of openness, but there may be a price to pay when you over share with colleagues.

Mr Jones says that it is a tricky line to tread. "If you reveal too little, you are unlikely to gain the confidence and trust of your colleagues. Reveal too much and you may appear self-absorbed, distracted, needy, lacking judgement or unprofessional."

In addition, if you choose to share something very private with colleagues, they may not necessarily respect your boundaries when they decide whether to share this information.

Dilys Boey, Asean People Advisory Services leader, Ernst & Young Advisory, says that emotional boundaries are even necessary when it comes to people of different levels within the organisation. This is especially when one party has a say in work assignments, performance or promotions.

"At work, as a supervisor, one does need to make tough decisions or give critical but useful development feedback. If the friendship makes it awkward and difficult to accomplish and improve, that would pose a problem."

Friend or foe

With so much at stake in the workplace, can real friendships exist? The verdicts are a mixed bag.

Ms Boey believes that it is possible, and even inevitable, for friendships to develop. Some of her best friends today are those she made in her early career almost 20 years ago.

"Because we were like-minded and shared a common view of work, we could openly discuss and encourage each other on ways to do better," says Ms Boey.

But not everyone holds such a positive view.

Mr Jones refers to an old cliché which he believes still holds true: be friendly at work, but don't have friends.

"When your loyalty to your friend competes with your loyalty to the organisation, problems will surely follow. If you are promoted tomorrow to become the boss of your current team, will your former peers respect you and expect you to be fair and impartial when you are the boss? If the answer is no, then reconsider your current conduct," he says.

CareerLadder's Mr Tan is also cautious when it comes to workplace friendships.

"I think co-workers have to earn that trust to begin with. They need to be the ones who got your back and are willing to do OT (overtime) for you and vice versa. But even so, it is better to draw a clear line," he says.

Steps to take

Having clear boundaries doesn't mean that you have to keep everything to yourself and be aloof.

Mr Tan says that the best strategy at work is to be authentic while still being cautious by making sure that anything you say cannot be used against you.

"I think it (forming friendships at work) is a bit like dating. You inch a bit forward, she inches a bit forward and soon enough, you are holding hands. Manners and courtesy always have to be in place to exude professionalism," he explains.

He suggests that people see colleagues as internal customers rather than a "BFF", as most people are not likely to share anything too private, such as complaints about the boss.

So before you want to reveal anything to a co-worker, stop and think if you would say the same thing to a customer. This can be a good litmus test to prevent oversharing or saying things that could get you in trouble.

Instead of incendiary topics such as work grouses, Mr Tan suggests steering to more neutral topics to build rapport, such as outside interests or even their children.

Even if you are close to your colleagues, Ms Boey advises that they should leave their bonding and sharing of personal time outside of the office.

"During work hours, try and be more accessible to other co-workers. If you feel there could be a potential conflict of interest, withdraw yourself from the situation," advises Ms Boey.

But no matter how much you have in common or how closely connected you feel with your co-workers, it is best to ensure that some things should be kept private.

It may seem cynical, but people come and go, and relationships and feelings change or sour at the drop of a hat. Nobody wants a situation where things are taken too personally and office dynamics and performance get affected.

Just decide for yourself what your boundaries are, and as long as everyone knows and respects them, co-workers can still have a good time and enjoy one another's company.

As Mr Tan concludes succinctly: "At the end of the day, nobody goes to work to make best friends."

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