Organisation engagement and productivity are two of the biggest beneficiaries of healthy workplace friendships.
Indeed, only 20% of employees have a best friend at work. But if that rate increased to 60%, organisations would see 36% fewer safety incidents, seven per cent more engaged customers, and 12% higher profit, according to Gallup's State of the American Workplace 2017 report.
However, it’s important to note that if they are not handled correctly they could 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.
People management specialist Karen Gately told HRD that friendships are an incredibly important part of the workplace cultural environment where people are able to “emotionally buy into it and own it”.
“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 said.
However, it’s also clear that some friendships can be more complicated.
“Employers should want workplace friendships but only the ones which are kept in their place,” said 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, said 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 said. “It’s the behaviour that has to stop, not the friendship.”
Gately added that 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.”
But what about circumstances where these office friendships become something more?
According to Gately, handling workplace romances can be a terrifying experience for some HR professionals, but they don’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
“We have to acknowledge that workplace romances are incredibly common and a lot of people meet their life partner at work,” said Gately.
“I’ve known many people who have been in personal relationship and you’d hardly know – they’re really professional, really hard-working, never skip a beat and the company can actually benefit because those individuals are so invested in the company.”
What really matters is if those workplace relationships are causing conflicts or challenges – the most concerning of which is when there’s a direct line of report or a clear power imbalance.
“In those cases, HR has to address the relationship immediately – and that could mean people moving or leaving jobs – because there’s a very clear conflict,” she said.
“It can very easily undermine the confidence of the rest of the team because they start to doubt whether fair decisions are being made in relation to this individual, to their career, promotional opportunities, income and all the rest of it.”
However, when it comes to relationships without a power imbalance, Gately said HR should only get involved if it’s having a detrimental impact on the organisation.
“I wouldn’t proactively go to two people and say; ‘We’ve found out you’re in a relationship and here’s the rule book,’ unless they were behaving inappropriately in the workplace,” she said.
“Instead, I would manage it more broadly by creating a cultural environment that sets clear expectations around professionalism and conduct.”
Regardless of whether two people are in a relationship or not, Gately said staff should know it’s unacceptable to bring personal drama into the office and shouldn’t be having unreasonable arguments in the workplace.
“Be clear on your culture, be clear on your policies, then deal with it on a case-by-case basis and understand that people will have relationships – trying to ban them is naïve,” she said.
If loved-up employees are too distracted or lovers’ tiffs are infiltrating the office, Gately said HR should coach managers to address the performance problem head on.
“That conversation needs to draw their attention to the fact that their behaviours are not aligned to the professional standards that are expected by the organisation,” she said.
“Being distracted and unproductive is a problem irrespective of why you’re doing that,” she said.
“Similarly, having arguments or detrimentally impacting the team environment is not acceptable irrespective of what’s happening.”
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