Business and friendship: it’s all about professional respect


JR_Ewing You can't understate the importance of relationships in business – especially sourcing, where it's all about cultural fit and working relationships.  In business, it's not always about liking people, it's about being able to trust – and work – with them.  Sometimes, you will actually grow to like someone, in addition to trusting them and working well with them – and that is special; but let's face it, it's quite rare.

In many cases, people you like are not always people you're going to work well with – and vice-versa.  You may not have any affinity or liking for someone at all, but you are straight with other in a working scenario, and have an effective working relationship.  You can always develop a professional respect for someone – and that is different from developing a personal relationship.

If there's one thing that irks me, it's those people who only bother to talk to you when they need something, but paint a facade that they're one of your real "friends".  I like to create a distinction between someone who is a genuine friend, and someone who is a colleague / industry contact.  It's like when you change jobs – you are often surprised by whom was really a friend, versus who was merely toadying up to you, to get you to do things for them…

My real industry colleagues are those folks who I have learned to work with over the years, in various capacities.  In some cases, I didn't (immediately) like them much on a personal level – and they probably didn't like me either, but we learned to function together and create a collaborative working relationship.  And now, I know I can call on many of these folks for favors – and they me. And we can even enjoy a pint or two together these days.

And those folks who come crawling out of the woodwork every few years just because they want something under the guise of "friendship"? Give me a break…

So what can you take from this?  Simply-put, developing professional respect for someone can form the start of a career-long relationship.  In today's economy, having workable, trusting professional associations with people, who know your business value and credentials, is a lot more valuable that having random shallow friendships based on self-interest.

Posted in : HR Strategy



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  1. Phil,

    If experience has taught me one thing, it is to set my expectations that not everyone shares a common view of a work relationship – I found this especially true as I worked internationally. I found that it was not better or worse, just different. So I learned to work with what I was presented.

    When it came to those who were self-centered, etc. – I would try to see if they would develop a stronger relationship, but if they were not interested, then I simply limited my interaction to what was required. In time, as people leave these types of folks outside of teams, etc. – then hopefully they get the message.

    Mark Richards

  2. Phil,

    Very well said! I think you speak for many of us when you make the differentiation between who’s a true friend versus a phony.

    From my experience, the “phony friends” tend to struggle to develop strong relationships with give them long-term career trajectories, than those people focused on developing good working relationships,


  3. Hi Phil,

    I agree with your in general, but Mark is also right in that everyone has a different view of how business relationships work.

    And then there is the intangible… chemistry. Either way, it is up to everyone to act professionally, and part of that is not just communicating only when asking for help.


  4. We have just one mind & one brain. Just as recent neurological studies have revealed the flaws of our age-old left brain – right brain distinction, the trends at work-place (Gen Y, home-office, remote-access, social-networks etc) too are increasingly blurring work & life distinction. Work is part of life. Perhaps, its time to feel comfortable (in our own mind/brain) with just one assessment criteria for all relationships. Effective relationships are (as you rightly highlight), built on trust & for this, we require honest/truthful communication. There will be days when your best-friend diagrees with you in the board-room & you’ll strongly dislike him/her for it. But then, if you know him/her to be always honest with you, an open discussion will not spoil the relationship. You’ve got to be kidding your own self, if the same doesn’t hold true with your spouse – arguments, discussion, some compromise & above all, truth, the unifying agent.

    In the sourcing world of 24*7 services, the 40-hour week, is little more than contractual sub-text, when you carry your work home & everywhere else you go to, not in your hand-held/laptop ,but in your mind. Work & Life distinction is an outdated interpretation of being professional, when the professions themselves are new & global. There is a diverse/multi-cultural context which inevitably gets overlooked, when we wear bi-polar 1950s US/EU post-war ,management hats & look at a WORK-LIFE relationship classification. Under the hood of culture, isn’t an easy Western-Eastern distinction anymore. Like it or not, organized religions influence cultures a lot. Assuming uniform labor contract conditions of 40-hour weeks, “Work-Life” is still open to different interpretations between the extremities of Gnosis-Praxis (Greek/Latin/Christian), Yin-Yang (Chinese/Tao/Buddhist), Gyana-Prana (Indian/Hindu/Buddhist) & Zikr-Fikr (Arabic/Persian/Turkish/Islamic).Then there are the economic realities too. In India, where we have just 23% of working population under any form of employment contract (majority in govt. contracts), our interpretation on ” work-life” ( especially first-time workers) will undoubtedly be different from US/EU workers.

    In this information-overloaded world, I dont doubt the necessity of more effective personal time-management, for sourcing industry professionals however, the ingredients of a good relationship are the same, at work & in life. A friend, is a friend, is a friend but be selective when you turn an acquaintance into a friend, especially if you move around in industry power-circles ! Here is a tip from the music industry –

  5. Dear Phil:

    The only person that you can trust completely is yourself and what everyone wants to do is work with people who are a manifestation of your self. When working with others, the best way to start in my opinion is get the relationship started without any pre-judgement. Focus on the work at hand, be open to ideas that they bring, not associate any meaning/ bias to what they do and how they do it. This builds trust. Trust helps professional relationships build. In this process, you may find friendships as well, but do not hold that as the standard for engagement.

    Friendship build because you care about the other persons success as much as you do yours while professional realtionships build because of successes in what you do together. Friendships may or may not translate to professional relationships and vice versa.


  6. Hi Phil,

    Since we are talking on the working place, your first concern is getting the job done.
    I once read an interesting research from the Harvard Business Review: “the likeable fool or the competent jerk”
    It uses the “High Low Matrix” to present the 4 types of employees on the job:

    1. competent and likeable + +
    2. competent and jerk + –
    3. incompetent and likeable – +
    4. incompetent and jerk – –

    You know that the tough cases are 2 & 3 – the results were that managers admitted that most of the time they chose type 3 to join their team – and they felt bad about it, they felt they followed guts and not logic 🙂 but it found out that from a team standpoint that would make the most sense.

    On a more personal account, you know people come to work with more than a tie and bag; they bring their frustrations, the last night bad sleep, etc.

    So to make a long story short, what do we learn from it?
    You need to respect that each person see the “working place” different and have different expectations – what you can do about it, is first take what each person offers, one will offer a business contact, the other a beer 🙂 if you think you like someone and you want to get closer – then offer a beer, but don’t go out of your skin.

    So on the working place, stick to professional respect first, then tell a sad story from your life, if they cry – you know you are friends 😉


  7. As Gordon Gecko says in the film ‘Wall Street’ – “If you need a friend, get a dog” 🙂

    I too find it intensely frustrating when former colleagues and co-workers phone me out of the blue “for a chat” followed by a ten minute pitch to find out where I’ve been interviewing or to pump me for info about whether my new company could be doing with a new IT system, landscaping, shredding services, etc…

  8. I managed a large consulting practice where the my practice leaders had huge egos and were extremely competitive. I used to tell them, “You do not have marry each other, you just have to work together.” That eased their determination to compete with each other and set the record straight about what my expectations were. After a while, the collaboration vastly improved and the teamwork was pretty good. 10 years later, we still stay in touch and consider ourselves friends.

    Rosemary Coates, Blue Silk Consulting

  9. Hi Phil,

    I agree with you in general and also with Mark. Nice perspectives on friendship and success from Raghu. My take is as below –
    Relationships are all about seeking fulfillment, support or community. We give various names to relationships based on the levels of fulfillment, support of community achieved in that engagement. Human needs for relationships are in all strata of life – personal & family, professional, social and spiritual. Man is a creature of trust and commitment (or the lack of them) which forms the core of all such relationships. Nature and intensity of the trust and commitment decides the nature of the relationship and hence the names for them.

    In the world of work, your fulfillment is about achieving your professional goals, where you seek support to achieve your goals and look at building communities around your areas of expertise or aspiration. Rarely do you cross the boundaries of this fulfillment realm and seek personal or maybe spiritual fulfillment in this space. Where you do, you do that with individuals where you seem to build some community in the work realm and you want to explore more realms where you can seek fulfillment from the same person and vice versa.

    So everybody who looks like a good colleague at work will or can never be a friend, somebody that you can make friends at work may not be a good colleague at all. People who dress as friends at work mostly are trying to get their share of fulfillment from you without giving in much only with a false façade of fulfillment in another realm. On a lighter note, that is why salesmen play a lot of golf (and other games) so that they can connect with executives in the realm of recreation and take advantage of the fulfillment delivered there in the realm of work.

    So do not fall prey to smart cookies and salesmen. The best friends at work are the ones who are willing to contribute to your fulfillment and are expecting the same in return from you. That is what I am willing to call “professional respect” which should be the core for relationships at work,


  10. Phil,

    Of course there is a difference between professional relationships and friendship — this is not new.

    Part of the problem that you allude to is that the line between “work” and “life” is rapidly eroding. If my boss wants to “friend” me on, is he a “friend” or a professional connection. If I am available to work 24/7 because of my mobile device, when is my “free” time?

    Another part of the problem that you allude to is that people spend many more hours at work than the increasingly aspiration 40 hour workweek. (My labor organizer Grandfather spins eternally in his grave at the 60+ hour workweek that professionals manage.) When you spend most of your waking hours with a group of people, it’s easy to misread the relationships as “friendship.” You work together, eat together, plot strategy together, commiserate together… With that kind of workweek and life, you must make extraordinary efforts to connect with your other friends.

    On the other hand, if you are very very lucky, you can find real friends at work — people with whom you are able to maintain relationships long past your work together. That has always been the case, and it will continue to be so.

    Susan Gainen

  11. Perhaps my perspective will be slightly different here given my specific Human Resources career focus. I very rarely cultivate real friendships at work.

    My first reason is perhaps a little arrogant, but I was hired by an employer primarily to do a job for that employer and to do it well, not to socialize and find friends. As a supervisor I have observed too many coworkers forming distracting friendships in an office, some of which caused one or both friends to lose their job. This situation cannot help but skew the perspective of the friends left behind, which can result in either an unhappy worker with a grudge at best, or a domino effect of unexpected turnover at worst. But I am also quite sufficient outside of work in the friendship building area, so I don’t find myself starving for this social interaction while I am at work.

    The second reason is more a matter of self preservation. Everyone wants to be friends with an HR person (or they think they do). I believe this can be dangerous for both parties. Coworkers who smugly believe that their HR friend will either share inside information or give them a heads up if their job is in jeopardy can wreak havoc in an office; the smug worker feels they can get away with more (or less) and if others in the office are aware of the friendship, they can also feel excluded or jealous. None of this creates a positive environment. And regardless of how truly professional a friendship with HR is (or say, for example, being related to the HR manager), others in the organization cannot help but assume a favoritism will occur.

    Another reason feeds from the last, and this is the legal implications that HR law has outside of the office. When joining coworkers at the bar after hours, while I may not be wearing my managerial name tag, most HR law still dictates that I am still to be regarded as functioning within my managerial role. While I would love to shoot the breeze with coworkers and learn or share juicy rumors over a few beers, I simply cannot allow myself to be placed in a situation where I will learn something that I either must act upon legally or would be called upon to testify about in court later. It is not worth it to me.

    In my 20+ years in HR roles across various organizations, I can truly only name two individuals who “crossed over” from coworker to outside friend, and they understood and respected the implications placed upon us both. I did not develop these friendships lightly and neither did they. We got it.

    I am very friendly and cordial and professional to everyone within the workplace. I just have to make certain that I maintain boundaries for my own protection and theirs. Many will consider me a friend, but they won’t be joining me for a beer later.

    Nanci Lamborn, SPHR

  12. Hi Phil

    I understand your outlook towards professional contacts and friends.
    My experience has been a varied over the years of my work. I have come across some amazing professional contacts who have remained with me as my best friends till date. They are definitely not many but certainly have become trusted friends.
    And then there have been instances with ‘fair weather friends’ who are in touch either to show off or get ‘inside’ information or just looking for answers only to disappear once done.

    As per me in a professional environment, the goal / objective is important. This becomes the focus of all our actions at the workplace and we work towards it.
    We do find people of similar nature with whom we can connect at certain levels. However, for friendships to develop it can take months and years.

    Professional contacts should always have a certain degree of professionality in it. You are friendly but not familiar in your interactions with professional contacts.
    However with friends at the workplace you are near and familiar and have trusted relationships.

    It largely depends on how you are as an ‘Individual’ in the workplace and also how much time you spend at work.
    Are you someone who seeks to develop ‘beyond work’ friendships? Or you are someone who likes to keep work and friends in seperate buckets?
    These 2 scenarios are fairly straightforward to understand and relate to.

    In this 3rd scenarion, are you and individual who keep a fine balance as a friend and as a professional contact as well. Thats where the conflicts can arise as this situation hovers around ‘expectation management’, ‘tuning towards certain situations’ etc
    All these degress of interactions are necessary for a leader to assess the relationship meters in his career and seek what is relavant for him and his organisations’ growth

    Hope this helps you

    Best Regards


  13. Hi Phil –

    Straight to the point!

    Business and friends never work for me, but if your friend is really a friend, he will respect your business decision, and if you really want move on in your business, professional contacts at work will be more beneficial to you then your friend.

    In the end the decision it’s yours.


  14. To be a good leader one must have followers.

    I love my kids but it is not my job to be their best friend. They count on me to make good decisions that will ensure their security, future and to get them to develop the best habits and mindsets that exploits their inner strengths and talents. Whether coaching a team or leading an organization, professional respect is what those with proven track records command.

    David Alexander

  15. Phil,

    The workplace is a microcosm of our world, one that we spend a lot of time in. It is less important that one may be taken advantage of by so-called friends; it isn’t important. It is more important that one acts according to one’s value system. And I would urge that we view the workplace as a venue where we can touch lives in a positive way. The workplace for many of us is the only avenue where we can make a difference on a daily basis – to bring a little joy and happiness to a colleague, a subordinate, a customer or a supplier through their interaction with you. What they do with the gift of your friendship is immaterial; it matters that you give of yourself unselfishly. Because in the end, this is what determines how well you have lived your life.


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