Tips for Creating Productive and Positive Professional and Personal Relationships
Consequences and Tips on Dealing with Professional and Personal Relationships

There are some circumstances that pose particular challenges in remaining professional and practicing workplace etiquette. Maintaining professionalism tends to be a problem, or at least a more difficult challenge, when people's emotions become involved. This is more likely to occur when employees have an emotional bond or other emotional investment in other staff, potential staff, or even clients.


Given the number of people most of us interact with on any given day in our professional life, it stands to reason that friendships are going to naturally develop in the workplace. While many people become friendly, or even close friends, with professionals from other companies or even customers or clients, the most common relationships certainly occur within the individual company itself. Co-workers spend a tremendous amount of their waking hours with each other, rather than their other friends or even a significant other. Just as conflicts will arise, so too, will friendships and alliances. Even more complex is a friendship that emerges between an employee and their supervisor or boss.

The first step toward maintaining professionalism and friendship with co-workers is understanding what the organizational culture has dictated to be professional. Generally speaking, most businesses are comfortable with peers becoming friends, as long as they are still able to work alongside each other and other staff members. Friendships between employees and supervisors is much more complex and different organizational cultures view this issue in a number of ways. Most of the time, if the subordinate is in a different department than the higher ranking person, it is considered a non-issue as long as both sides of the equation can behave professionally at work, and no boundary lines between departments are crossed or blurred.

A friendship between a subordinate and someone in their direct chain of command is much more complex. If there is no one else in the department, and both individuals continue to do their jobs effectively and efficiently, there most likely won't be any conflict. The second another person enters the equation, however, the likelihood of some conflict increases dramatically. Unless all subordinates have equal respect for each other and equally important friendships with their supervisor, at some point, someone is likely to get their feelings hurt (at best), or end up quitting or fired (at worst). Even if this ideal relationship were to occur, conflicts can still arise. In some situations, a supervisor or manager is required to report certain things further up the chain of command -- even things that occur after hours or outside of a person's professional capacity. For example, if a person is arrested for driving drunk and telephones their best friend, who happens to be their supervisor, and discloses this information, the supervisor may have to report the arrest at work.

Given all of this information and the countless potential scenarios that can cause conflict that arises from friendships that develop at work, what options are you left with?

  • Do not engage in friendly banter or relationships with others at work. Aside from non-personal chitchat at the office or around the water cooler, you may decide it is simply more prudent to avoid developing any deeper relationships with those around you.

  • Be friendly, but not friends. Having a friendship that is limited to the workplace is a fairly common way of handling this type of scenario. It allows you to build rapport while limiting your likelihood of crossing over a line that would make things more complex. Of course, this is certainly not foolproof. Knowing that a member of your staff is going through a divorce and struggling financially may color your decision as to who gets a raise; even if it doesn't color your decision, it may appear to do so. Again, this is one of those cases where the organizational culture can make all the difference.

  • Be friends with clear boundaries. If you would be required to tell your employer about something regarding your friend, be clear with your friend that this is something you would have to do if they disclose certain information to you. Although this does, to some degree, limit the potential depth of your friendship, it sets clear boundaries and guidelines for both people to follow.

When you make your decisions regarding this issue, try to be consistent and establish clear expectations. Go above and beyond to try and make yourself as objective as possible in order to act like a supervisor at work, although you may be a friend off-hours.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Business Professionalism course?

Romantic relationships

Potentially developing a romantic relationship at work is even more complex than navigating a friendship. Many people worry about what would happen if they dated a co-worker, then broke up. The reality is that it is extremely difficult at every stage of the relationship. From initial flirting through to the end, it's like walking through a minefield.

First, understand your company's policies about interoffice romance. Sometimes, it may be allowed, as long as the people work in different departments. At some places it is permitted only if a supervisor has given their approval. At other places, it is forbidden outright. Most commonly, it is not allowed between any subordinate and their supervisor. In point of fact, pursuing a romantic or sexual relationship with anyone at work walks a very fine line regarding sexual harassment; this line becomes much broader when you introduce the element of power differential, such as between a boss and their employee.

What's the difference between sexual harassment and beginning a romantic relationship? Most critical is that a romantic relationship should be consensual. Someone agreeing to a date after being asked out 15 times has not really consented, so much as given in, and therein lies the element of sexual harassment. A co-worker making overtly sexual comments is committing sexual harassment. A boss making sexual gestures toward an employee is absolutely sexual harassment. Some situations are difficult to determine; it is thus, that much more important that each and every individual is open, honest, and responsive to how others feel.

In certain circumstances, a sexual relationship where there's a power differential can even cross a line into rape. Any situation where the person with less power might face unsafe situations by not engaging in sexual acts is not freely consenting. Consent should be freely given in order to be received.

Alternatively, there are some situations where a couple might be in a romantic relationship at work that did not begin in the workplace. Generally speaking, this should not be as complex, especially because they should be put in positions where there is no power differential or opportunity for favoritism.

Whether a relationship begins at the office or not, whenever a romantic relationship ends, everyone involved, including other employees of the company, need to maintain their professionalism and act with appropriate business etiquette. There is no need for rumor, taking sides, or other gossip. If it is not feasible for the two individuals to continue working together in an appropriate way, human resources should be brought into the situation and if it cannot be resolved, at least one -- or both -- of the individuals may need to change departments or be terminated, if they are unable to treat each other as professionals.

Nepotism and family

At some point in your career, it is likely that you will experience some nepotism or favorable treatment toward family members of managers or business owners. The level to which this occurs may vary tremendously and your experience with it will also vary. Many successful professional relationships involve family businesses or family members who work together; not all of these situations are negative. But in order to ensure a fair and equitable opportunity for others, it is important that those who work with family understand some basic business etiquette and professionalism as it relates to this topic.

There are two primary issues that arise regarding family in the workplace. First, family members may be given specific opportunities, job responsibilities, promotions and raises, and so on, regardless of whether they deserve it, or if other employees deserve it more. Equally as destructive is when a business owner or manager is unable to see or address poor work performance that stems from family members. While some families are able to work together successfully, other families can be the downfall of the entire business. Consequently, the hiring and firing of any particular family member must be taken very seriously and the treatment of other, non-family employees, is equally important. Remember the following tips for handling of these situations professionally:

  • Use objective standards whenever possible to measure job performance. This should help you better identify each employee's strengths and weaknesses and allows you to make more appropriate decisions regarding promotions and raises, as well as demotions and docks in pay.

  • Have a point of demarcation at the workplace. Ideally, whenever a person enters their place of business, family issues, like other personal matters, are left at the door. People may need to be reminded of this frequently, but as it becomes second nature, it will get easier and help ensure a polite and productive work environment.

  • Use the point of demarcation when you leave work, as well. Just as you don't want your family to destroy your business, you also don't want your business to destroy your family. Professionals handle issues at the workplace where it is appropriate, and upon leaving, take off their manager hat and put on their loving relative hat.

  • Never, ever, ever fight at work. Other employees don't want to see it. Suppliers and other professionals don't want to see it. Your customers and clients don't want to see it. Don't fight at work.

  • Ban family members from developing close relationships, whether romantic or platonic, with other employees. Your business already has enough issues with the people who are already bonded; you don't need to generate more.

When work is about more than just work, there's a lot of potential for unprofessional behavior. Set clear expectations and boundaries and follow them.