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Workplace Relationships Are So Awkward. Why?

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Workplace Relationships Are So Awkward. Why?

What makes workplace relationships between men and women so difficult and what can we do to make them less awkward?

This is an invited blog written by Jared Kopczynski (2012), a graduate student at Boise State University.

You know the story. It’s ever-present in television shows and films. A man and woman work together and they become friendly. Just add time and they become romantically involved. Next thing you know they are locking the office door, closing the blinds, throwing their clothes across the room, and sprawling across the desk.

While stories like this are popular and come to mind quickly when we think about workplace relationships between men and women, allow me to tell a different story. A story that highlights the barriers to developing male-female friendships at work.

Mike worked in the marketing department of a mid-sized technology company named Omnitech, in southern California. Jen began working for Omnitech a few months after Mike and was placed on Mike’s team. Initially Jen and Mike interacted because of the tasks they had to coordinate with one another.

Considering Jen had been given a desk just across the hall, it was convenient for her to pop in to Mike’s office and ask about project related issues. As time went on, Jen began to swing by to ask how Mike’s day was, and Mike began to return the favor. As they grew beyond task related interactions, a friendshipwas beginning.

One day, several weeks into their friendship, Jen asked Mike if he wanted to grab a drink after work. While Mike thought that sounded nice, many questions started running through his head. How would he act while having a drink following work? What would their coworkers think? Was this more than a friendship? Did Jen want more than a friendship?

If he assumed she did and was wrong, would she think he was coming on to her in a harassing manner? With all of the lawsuits around sexual harassment, this invitation was nerve racking for Mike. Deciding it was too complicated, Mike said no. Surprised, Jen responded awkwardly, and their friendship slid back to a trivial level that focused primarily on tasks.

As demonstrated by the story above, researchers Kim Elsesser and Letitia Peplau discovered that when women and men become friends in the workplace, they begin to monitor their own behavior due to what their coworkers might think. They also become concerned about whether their actions will be misinterpreted by their new friend.

While these two barriers might make sense, Elsesser and Peplau’s next finding is astonishing. They found that 75% of men are thinking about sexual harassment charges and suits while interacting with women at work. With the three of these barriers put together, it is no wonder friendship between men and women at work often stays at a trivial level.

Despite these challenges, Elsesser and Peplau explain that workplace friendships are crucial. Friendships allow for advancement through mentor-type relationships and they make the workplace more enjoyable. With many men in management positions, there is a partition of sorts for women to break through if they want to engage in friendly relationships with men in the workplace.

I have heard enough stories, and I assume you have as well, to say that romantic relationships form at work frequently, and this is the crux. On one hand, there are men (and women) who are wondering if a romance in the office can grow. On the other hand, there are men who are terrified of being seen as sexually harassing. Between these extremes is the place where friendship can grow.

Friendships at work are crucial for workplace development, enjoyment, and advancement, so here are a few tips for engaging in friendships with the other sex at work, without ending up in mass confusion or a lawsuit.

  • As you engage in friendships with people of the other sex at work, be up front about your intentions.
  • If you have been clear and a friendship continues to grow, do not mistake enjoyment and depth of connection for romantic interest.
  • Lastly, do not give up on friendships because of the poor track record of sexual harassment and romantic relationships. Make your workplace a more enjoyableenvironment in which you can grow by engaging in friendships across the sex line.

For more information, see: Elsesser, L., & Peplau, L.A. (2006). The glass partition: Obstacles to cross-sex friendships at work. Human Relations, 59(8), 1077-1100.

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[Heidi Reeder]

Heidi Reeder, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Boise State University, and a Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year. She's the author of COMMIT TO WIN (2014, Hudson Street Press) and has authored and co-authored journal articles for leading communication journals such as Communication Monographs, Sex Roles, and The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. She regularly provides workshops on communication, commitment, language, and gender.

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