I saw The Avengers this week – brilliant, by the way, but nothing less ever comes from the great mind of Joss Whedon – and it got me to thinking about how people work together.  What are the advantages and disadvantages to workplace friendships?  Individually, each Avenger is effective in his or her own right.  Brought together under the assumption that being told you’re a team makes you a team, the results were disastrous.  It was only when casual friendships began to develop that this assembly of superheroes became a team – became The Avengers.

One of the questions commonly asked in surveys by the Gallup Organization is whether the individual queried has a best friend at work.  Gallup has determined that individuals who do have friends at work are more satisfied with their jobs.  And what do employers have to gain from satisfied employees?  How about these things, for openers:

  • Higher productivity: despite the fact that friendships increase the amount of socializing that takes place at work, productivity increases for a variety of reasons, including the support system created by friendship that can get employees through stressful situations;
  • Less turnover: working with those you consider to be your friends makes it less likely that you would ever wish to leave your job; and
  • Improved communication: this is the upside of socializing.  It creates a team atmosphere which enhances the ability to make decisions and manage conflict within the group.

There are, however, potential downsides to friendships at work.  For one thing, the supervisor/subordinate friendship may lead to feelings of unfair treatment by other workers or inaccurate performance assessments, which can, in turn, lead to claims of discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful discharge.  Friendships at work also may result in the failure to report bad behavior.  In a claim of sexual harassment, for instance, the employer needs these reports to effect prompt, remedial action.

The pitfalls don’t stop there.  The promotion of one friend over another is another potential downside, and that certainly can lead to bad feelings which may disrupt the workplace.  Further, the sharing of more intimate personal information that arises out of friendship may lead to problems for employers – like being charged with knowledge of a disability in a lawsuit when the knowledge did not reside with the decision-makers in a matter of discipline or discharge.

When the Avengers finally come together as a team, it’s through casual friendship.  The strengths of each member of the team combined to become greater as a whole.  Decision-making became more efficient as a result of the friendships developed.  Gotta love synergy!  Think about it.  If there wasn’t that connection, there’s no way a trouble-maker like Iron Man would ever take orders from a boy scout like Captain America.  And as for conflict management, I commend the efficiency of the Hulk’s style.  I don’t recommend the exact method, mind you, but you can’t argue with his results!

I suspect every employer is different with regard to the balancing of workplace friendships.  At my firm, workplace friendship is encouraged in ways that you may be able to adapt to your own environment.  We have office newsletters in which we share the goings-on of both our various offices and our many local communities.  We have strictly social gatherings, as well as work-related functions.  Within our teams, communication is a river that flows constantly via emails, teleconferences, and in-person meetings.  In other words, building teams is a priority here, and it works for us.  In that way, we’re kinda like the Avengers ourselves.  Only less dysfunctional.

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
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