Would you benefit from putting boundaries around your relationships with work friends? asks Rhonda Scharf

Liz and I have been friends for over 10 years, and her husband is someone I’ve known for almost 50 years. Recently, I hired Liz to work for my company.

Dangerous? I hope not. But it’s certainly something that could cause problems. That’s why I’ve given it a lot of thought and put some guidelines in place to ensure that our working and personal relationships don’t interfere with one another.

About four years ago I hired my husband, Warren. While that is technically “hiring a friend,” hiring him feels different from hiring Liz. Have you ever worked with friends? I don’t mean people you work with, who have become friends. (Because other than work, you likely don’t have a lot in common with them). I mean, have you ever worked with someone you’ve known for a long time?

I remember my very first job as a receptionist. I was young. The secretary was Crystal. Although we didn’t know each other at the time, we had gone to high school together. She knew the man who would become my husband; our friendship was not only based on being the only two admins in the office—we had a shared history.

We did a lot of things together. We were in each other’s wedding party. That was 30 years ago. While we are friends on Facebook, I haven’t seen Crystal in many, many years and we don’t have much in common any more. I am sure we would get along just fine playing, “What have you been doing over the years?” but once that ran out, I’m not sure we would have much to talk about.

In a recent study about co-workers and friendship, conducted by Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, 71 per cent of respondents said they don’t consider any of their co-workers to be their “best friend.” A surprisingly low 15 per cent said they consider co-workers to be real friends. Just over half of respondents said they felt comfortable talking to co-workers about health issues and only slightly more, their love life.

When I ask admins similar questions, their responses are drastically different. The vast majority of admins I speak with tell me they do consider their co-workers to be their friends. Maybe it’s because we are predominantly female and not in management—I’m not sure why we feel so differently, but we do. When I arrive at an Executive Secretary LIVE event, I feel like I’ve come home to family. I hug everyone! I genuinely believe we are friends and yes, I would feel comfortable talking to many of you about my love life or health. I want to believe that if we stopped working in this field, our friendship would continue.

I look forward to getting together with Bonnie Low-Kramen and her partner, Robert. My husband, Warren, and I both feel that we would have a ton of fun on vacation with Marion Lowrence and her husband, Jon. I believe we have a real friendship, found through work. When one of our “gang” suffers from health-related or family issues, we are all right there for each other. Look how well everyone came together when Vickie Sokol-Evans was diagnosed with cancer. We are friends, who happen to have our work in common.

But what happens when that friendship gets in the way of a working relationship? Is it possible to draw boundaries on friendship and work relationships?

I think we can.

Warren and I have been married for almost a dozen years. He has been my admin for just over four. I am often asked how we manage the fact that I’m the boss. Warren doesn’t have a background in admin. I love him, but he is not a natural at this job. We made a rule before he ever agreed to work with me that while we are in the office, we are not a married couple.

Our work relationship is not equal. We don’t discuss issues and come to a mutual agreement on them. In the office, I am the one in charge. If I say “We are going to do X,” I don’t expect him to say to me “No. That’s not what I want to do. Let’s do Y.” When I tell him that he isn’t doing something the way I want it done, he responds the way any employee would: by clarifying how I want it done and then doing it that way. He doesn’t respond the way a husband might … and I’ll leave it for you to decide what that might be.

Warren wouldn’t talk back to his supervisor if he worked anywhere else, so he doesn’t get those rights in our company either. I’ve had this company for 25 years. I’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t work. I know what I want, and since I’m the one in charge, I do get to decide what that is. We aren’t a partnership when we are in the office.

However, our married relationship is a partnership. When we are in the office, we forget the fact that we are married. We agree on rules that stipulate that in the office our relationship isn’t equal. In the end, we do things the way I want them done. Warren can disagree and he can present other arguments and he can make suggestions, but ultimately the final decision is mine.

When I hired my friend Liz, we agreed that although we are awesome friends, when it comes to work we need to ignore that; the same way that Warren and I agreed that in the office, we ignore the fact that we are married.

Liz and I agree that our friendship is ultimately more important than her job, and if it ever comes down to it, we would shake hands and say, “this isn’t exactly what I wasn’t looking for in a job/assistant,” and we will both understand what that means.

Would you benefit from putting boundaries around your working relationships with some of your work friends? What if one of you is promoted at work? While you may not be your friend’s supervisor, you will be in a different situation. You’ll know things that perhaps you cannot share with your friend—which may be awkward, since you are used to sharing everything you know about work and the people who work there.

Agree to sit down and put boundaries on your friendship: “When we are at work we are not buddies. We are work colleagues. We can be friendly, but not familiar. We will focus on our work relationship and not talk about our personal friendship at work. We may have had a fantastic weekend or holiday together, but while we are at work, we won’t talk about it with each other, or with others. And, when we are in friend mode, outside of the office, we both agree not to talk about work. We won’t complain about co-workers, about the company, or about the boss.”

Have the conversation. Make the rules. Preserve the friendship and the working relationship. A few moments of shared awkwardness are worth preserving your friendship for the long-term.

I’m glad that as admin professionals we aren’t generally falling into the typical statistics I mentioned above. I love that we are supportive, we are friendly, and above all, we really are friends. I also love the professionalism that goes with that which allows us to respect our personal friendship and our professional collaboration.


Rhonda Scharf, CSP, HoF, GSF is a Certified Speaking Professional, Hall of Fame, trainer and author based in Ottawa. She helps organizations feel motivated and educated through her interactive, realistic and fun training programs and keynote speeches. If ... (Read More)

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