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12.3: Types of Workplace Relationships

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    Friendships, Romance, and Mentors/Supervisors

    As we learned with uncertainty reduction theory (Berger & Calabrese, 1975), perceived similarity and self-disclosure play important roles in the formation of workplace relationships. Most co-workers are in close proximity, often working mere feet from one another for eight or more hours a day, but they may create smaller cliques based on department, age, parental status, or interests (Sias, 2005). These subgroups can create a sense of belonging or happiness for workers, who are able to connect with their co-workers on an interpersonal level. In research by Gallup, when employees were asked to consider their workplace relationship with their managers, there was a strong correlation between employee engagement and a positive working relationship (Crabtree, 2004).

    A lot of us derive most of our social needs from those work relationships. They’re what give people a sense of belonging in their job. Sometimes, there’s an idea that when you’re spending time with friends at work you won’t get anything done, but the research says that employee happiness depends on social interactions.

    In that same poll, of the engaged employees, 49% strongly agree that "A strong positive relationship with [my boss] is crucial to my success at work" (Crabtree, 2004, para. 14). Further research points to the support that can be gained from positive connections like receiving help, guidance, advice, feedback, and recommendations from colleagues like bosses, friends, and cubemates (Hamilton, 2007). Therefore, this section will help us explore why we seek out relationships at work, what influences our relationships with those we work with, and how friendships and romantic relationships can add value—and cause harm—to our workspace.


    Friends can bring us so much joy. You can laugh, commiserate, and feel supported with a friend. Interestingly, many sources show us that work is the number-one place people make friends (Morgan, 2020). When you combine the joy of friendship with the necessity for many of us to maintain a job, having a friend at work can make a workplace more intrinsically rewarding, helping to alleviate job-related stress. Friendships at work can be incredibly beneficial for us, and for our employers. Research from King (2020) tells us that “those who have close friends at work are more efficient in and satisfied with their jobs,” later pointing to research that states “that if one of your colleagues is a 'best' friend, you’re seven times more engaged at work than the average person” (Beard, 2020, para. 4).

    Two people at a table drinking coffee and laughing while working from laptops.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Two People Laughing At Work by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.

    We have talked about the benefits of workplace friendships. But we would be remiss to not mention the research about the downfalls of friendship in the workplace. We know that through self-disclosure (as discussed in Chapter 10) we gain access to others’ personal lives and emotions. In the moment, it may serve both members to have access to such intimate information. However, if the friendship changes—either because of conflict or because one friend changes roles at the company, such as moving up the corporate ladder—this interpersonal shift can not only be a distraction, but it can also change how open and authentic we are with our friends (Markman, 2018). The reputation of the company you keep, the change of subordinate/managerial roles, and competition for future jobs can all be cause for friction among friends at work (Kirmayer as cited in Vasel, 2018; Hakim as cited in Vasel, 2018).

    In sum, the research overwhelmingly supports workplace friendships as a positive interpersonal relationship at work. Having a friend at work can help with your job satisfaction and work performance. The key advice from the experts seems to be setting appropriate boundaries. Amy Cooper Hakim, an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert, says you don’t’ always need to fully disclose with people at work (cited in Vasel, 2018). Instead, she encourages people to “be kind, professional and nice. But we don’t need to tell every person at work our deep dark secrets, and long-term goals and dreams” (Hakim as cited in Vasel, 2018).

    Romantic Relationships

    Overhead view of two people holding cups of coffee at a table
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Hands of Two People Having Coffee by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

    Have you ever dated someone at work? Do you know if your company has a formal policy regarding romance in the workplace? If you have ever been exposed to workplace romance, whether knowing of one in your company, or by engaging in a relationship with a co-worker yourself, you might already know that romantic relationships at work can be controversial. Romance between colleagues has been examined and debated by scholars and academics from as early in the 1970s. In this section, we will take a quick look at romance in the workspace.

    Workplace Romance Defined

    Pierce and Aguinis (2001) defines workplace romances as "mutually desired relationships involving sexual attraction between two employees of the same organization" (p. 206). (Please note that this does not include unwanted intimate interactions or sexual harassment of any kind; that will be covered later in this chapter.) Romantic relationships begin for much of the same reasons most interpersonal relationships begin: proximity, similarity, and physical attraction. A 2020 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that more than 50% of American workers report having had a crush on a co-worker. In fact, almost 30% have had a workplace romance—and nearly the same amount report dating a boss or higher-up (Society for Human Resource Management, 2020). Therefore, we can deduce that workplace relationships are common, they are easy to access, and they happen both laterally (among colleagues) and vertically (subordinate to boss).

    Two women of color looking at a Macbook's screen
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Two Women Working on a Laptop by Christina @ on Unsplash

    Though there is no consensus on why romantic relationships start, researchers have identified factors and progressions for how these relationships can evolve (Pierce & Aguinis, 2003). In their study of romantic workplace relationships, Pierce, Byrne, and Aguinis (1996) propose a model for understanding workplace relationships that begins with the physical closeness of two people; requires interpersonal and romantic attraction, and a desire for a workplace relationship; and finally results in active engagement in that relationship. Workplace romances can progress and evolve like any other romantic relationship, with ups and downs, from emotional intimacy to the casual hook-ups (Wilson, 2015). Interestingly, experts in the fields of Communication Studies, Psychology, Sociology, and Business have advocated against any kind of intimate relationship at work and also broadly encouraged sexuality and eroticism as natural components of workplace culture (Wilson, 2015).

    Personal and Professional Ramifications

    What may be of even more interest to those who have debated whether to engage in a workplace romance is the eventual outcome. To generalize some very complicated and intricate research, romantic relationships can foster two types of outcomes: personal and professional. Let’s examine the positive side first. On the personal side, workplace romances can positively impact an employee’s job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and motivation at work. Employees engaged in romantic workplace relationships will work longer hours so they can spend more time with their romantic partners (Romantic Relationships at Work, 2020). On the professional side, research by Robert Quinn (1977) cites job advancement, security, increased power, financial rewards, easier work, and job efficiency as possible professional benefits of a workplace relationship with someone of higher status—which makes workplace romance well worth the risk for some.

    White men sharing a desk, working on computers
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Two men working on computers side-by-side by Tim van der Kuip on Unsplash

    However, as with any romantic relationship, the romance can dwindle or be terminated for a multitude of reasons, resulting in minor to significant impacts both personally and professionally. As you might have guessed, when a relationship sours in the workplace, one or both parties could see their career advancement stifled, experience less job security, and suffer a reduction in power at work (Romantic Relationships at Work, 2020). In addition, other interpersonal workplace relationships could be damaged by the romance. From disapproval and hostility for the romantic partners, to the perception of favoritism (assumptions that there will be extra benefits or opportunities for the romantic partner over other employees), the reaction of co-workers can result in cynicism and hostility (Anderson & Fisher, 1991; Anderson & Hunsaker, 1985). Research also shows that after a failed workplace romance, there can be a decrease in job satisfaction, less organizational commitment, and lowered employee motivation (Romantic Relationships at Work, 2020). Swartz, Warfield, and Wood (1987) concluded that sex and work do not mix, arguing that workplace romances hurt both the parties involved as well as their co-workers and thus the organization at large.

    Company Policies on Workplace Romance

    As we mentioned at the start of this section, workplace romances are complicated—as well as being common and easily accessible. Rules on workplace romance are company-specific. Some employers ban interoffice dating altogether, while others allow dating so long as there is not a power dynamic at play, such as a manager dating a subordinate for example (Noguchi, 2020). In addition, employees should be aware that even if their employer does not have a strict ban on co-worker romance, they still must follow general HR guidelines for the workspace. It is important to consider the threat of a perceived quid pro quo, where one employee asks for something in return for a favor. Mirande Valbrune, a Miami employment attorney, suggests always being explicit that it is safe for another to say “no” to any advances, like grabbing coffee or going out to dinner (Noguchi, 2020).

    Moving forward, it is important for you to understand your workplace policies on relationships between co-workers, set very clear boundaries with those whom you work with, and assess your risk/reward factor before engaging in any kind of romantic relationship at work.

    Mentors and/or Supervisors

    A man and woman wearing professional clothing, smiling and high-fiving each other
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Two employees giving a high-five by krakenimages on Unsplash

    In addition to friendships and romantic relationships, we can also build relationships with mentors and/or supervisors. These workplace relationships can help us grow, achieve upward mobility, and provide us with some emotional support in our careers (University of California, Davis, 2019; Kram & Isabella, 1985). To frame and focus this section of our chapter, we will define mentors and supervisors as follows:

    • mentor is a more experienced colleague who provides guidance, knowledge, and support for the purpose of the advancement of a less experienced colleague (Bauer, 1999).
    • supervisor is charged with managing others’ performance, including conducting performance evaluations, while also serving as an educator, sponsor, coach, counselor, and director (UHR Employee Development, n.d.).

    Let’s begin by talking about why we would want to build interpersonal relationships with mentors and/or supervisors at work. First, we know that trust is important to creating and maintaining relationships. Studies show that organizations with trusting relationships between management and employees gain advantages that organizations without these relationships do not (Hosmer, 1995; Argyris, 1964). For example, in the restaurant industry, trust between supervisors and employees is related to success in sales, profits, and lower employee turnover (Davis, et al., 2000). Furthermore, managers whose employees trust them were perceived more favorably in terms of their abilities, goodwill, and integrity (Davis, et al., 2000). A supervisor can act as a mentor by providing both professional guidance and emotional support (Kram & Isabella, 1985). Though not all supervisors serve as mentors, Bell (1996) argues that when supervisors act as mentors, the beneficiaries include the mentor, mentee, and the organization itself.

    Two people looking at a computer screen together, as if they are working on something as a team.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Two women working together at a computer by Christina @ from Unsplash

    Why would someone want to engage in a mentoring relationship? According to Kathy Kram in her groundbreaking book Mentoring at Work, mentoring provides two basic functions for mentees: career and psychosocial. Career functions are what come to mind for most people when they think about mentoring, because career functions are associated with helping the mentee “learn the ropes'' in an organization (or a field), with the goal of helping the mentee to climb the corporate ladder.

    Mentors can engage in a number of different behaviors to help a mentee advance their career. For example, a mentor can coach the mentee; a mentor can sponsor the mentee’s advancement by placing them on interesting and challenging projects; a mentor can help mentee receive recognition and/or ensure the mentee is widely visible; and a mentor can provide the mentee certain protections from organizational or field-based politics.

    To explain how mentor–mentee relationships function from a communication perspective, Pamela Kalbfleisch developed the mentoring enactment theory. In Kalbfleisch’s theory, the mentor–mentee relationship centers on two people who are joined together either formally or informally for the explicit purpose of achieving success. While mentees desire mentoring relationships because of the known value of mentoring on one’s career trajectory, mentors experience inherent costs.

    For mentors, there are costs associated with “loss of time spent coaching a protégé, vulnerability through sharing hard-earned techniques and secrets, and potentially developing difficulties in one’s personal and professional life because of a relationship with a protégé” (Kalbfleisch, 2002, p. 64). So, why then do mentors opt to enter into mentoring relationships? Mentors have a variety reasons depending on their own organizational and personal perceptions of mentoring itself. According to Kalbfleisch (2002) there are four common reasons why people decide to become a mentor: altruism, pay-it-forward, organizational expectations, or self-interest.

    1. Altruism: The mentor may feel some kind of deeply held obligation to help others, so they seek out and enter into mentoring relationships out of a simple desire to see others grow.
    2. Pay-it-forward: The notion of paying-it-forward is based on the idea that the mentor was at one point a mentee, and they feel a sense of obligation to their own mentor. To pay this debt, they opt to take on mentees. In this sense, the mentor is paying-it-forward to a new generation of mentees.
    3. Organizational expectations: Many organizations have formal mentoring requirements for individuals who reach a certain seniority stage. Often in these formal mentoring situations, the mentor may not have a choice of mentees. These mentoring relationships may not be the most effective because the mentor may feel strong-armed into the relationship.
    4. Self-interest. Some mentors want a mentee for no other reason than they want someone can help “accomplish outcomes or for an entourage to follow in one’s wake" (Kalbfleisch, 2002, p. 64).

    Mentoring and Coaching, Section 7.3 in An Introduction to Organizational Communication with Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0.

    This page titled 12.3: Types of Workplace Relationships is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anu Khanna & Alex Mata (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .