Is it any of your employer’s business who you are friends with at work?

Employers are seeking clearer communication on close workplace friendships following presenter Phillip Schofield’s departure from ITV after lying about an 'unwise, but not illegal' affair with a younger colleague. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

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How would you classify your relationship with your colleague? ITV posed that question when updating its policy on workplace relationships last month. The broadcaster asked staff to declare not just romantic and family relationships but platonic ones too: flatmates, close relationships or friendships.

Some commentators were aghast, decrying it as a ban on work friends, conjuring a white-collar dystopia in which colleagues furtively slide messages on slips of paper under their desks.

A zero-friendship policy would be bad for business. More than half the workers polled by the US Society for Human Resource Management this year had a colleague they called a close friend. Work friends improve engagement and productivity. Since the pandemic, friendship, according to Gallup, has become increasingly important to workers. A best friend, the polling company says, increases “employees’ likelihood to recommend their workplace” as well as “their overall satisfaction with their workplace”.

Navigating the hybrid workplace is all the better with a friend, a more compelling incentive to lure commuters into the office than a free sandwich or a meeting – and someone to surreptitiously message while Zooming.

However, this is not a ban on friendship but an attempt to make ties between workers more transparent. ITV is looking into safeguarding procedures in the wake of presenter Phillip Schofield’s departure after lying about an “unwise, but not illegal” affair with a younger colleague.

Sarah Henchoz, an employment partner at law firm Allen & Overy, says policies on friendships are not widespread, though it is “pretty standard to require employees to disclose conflicts of interest they may have in relation to, for example, new hires”.

Procurement is another such area. Failing to declare such relationships can lead to distrust – the UK government has been tarnished by accusations of chumocracy in awarding contracts during the pandemic in an opaque tendering process.

Public sector organisations, including the NHS, universities and councils ask for disclosure of friendships within teams. Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys Foundation Trust’s policy says: “If you are closely related to another employee or have a close personal relationship with another employee who you directly/regularly work with, you must make sure your manager knows. If the person you are related to or that you have a close personal relationship with is your manager then you need to approach their manager.”

One challenge is the haziness around work friendships. The NHS trust says: “Employees are expected to exercise judgment in determining whether or not a friendship has developed to such an extent that it can be described as a close personal relationship.”

But where is the line? A drink outside of work? A holiday? A godparent to your work bestie’s child? What if you fall out with your friend: do you update management? You might see yourself as an acquaintance to a colleague whereas they see themselves as more.

If anything social media has made the lines fuzzier. “We’ve got used to people having 600 friendships on Facebook,” says David D’Souza, membership director at the CIPD. “That’s different to having 600 people you can call in the night.”

Policies on workplace romances are clearer. Some employers ask staff to disclose them, others ban them between senior executives and subordinates. Meta has a code of conduct for dating, allowing co-workers to ask each other out but not a second time.

Pam Loch, founder of Loch Associates Group, an employment law firm and consultancy, says disclosure policies are designed to diminish favourable treatment “by changing line management or putting other steps in place to change or remove that level of influence”. It also potentially helps guard against retaliation should the couple split.

In recent years, non-disclosure has triggered the departure of business leaders, including Bernard Looney from oil company BP, Jeff Zucker from CNN, the news network, and Steve Easterbrook at McDonald’s fast food restaurants.

There is some overlap with friendship, particularly when it comes to preferential treatment, says Nancy Rothbard, professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who has researched the dark side of workplace friends. While support from friends is important, she says, reciprocating it might prove “distracting”. It can be hard to give “tough feedback to a friend”. Friendship at work can also lead to perceptions of preferential treatment. “Work friendships can be seen as cliques,” leading to feelings of exclusion, which is demotivating.

“It is a problem but it won’t be solved with a list,” says D’Souza. Potentially, organisations end up with a volume of information that gives the illusion of control.

It often seems to me that the best test of friendship is when you leave. It’s easy enough to be matey when in need of an ally to let off steam. Much harder when you no longer bond over shared bureaucracy or the irritating habits and terrible decisions of a colleague. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023


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