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Working relationships: Can you be friends and colleagues?

You can be 'friendly' with colleagues, but not always 'friends', says this English teacher, who shares her advice for how to strike the right balance in staffroom relationships

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You can be 'friendly' with colleagues, but not always 'friends', says this English teacher, who shares her advice for how to strike the right balance in staffroom relationships

"People you work with are never your friends; they’re just people you work with."

When this advice was first given to me, I can’t say I was receptive to it. It felt cynical, cold and uncaring. As with much advice, it felt like the person bestowing it would benefit, rather than the recipient. Why is it not possible to have colleagues that are also friends?

Well, there’s one good reason, I have since learned. A successful department needs all its members to feel valued and listened to. Once friendships and cliques kick in, this can spark conflict amongst existing members of the department, but can also make it feel unwelcoming to newcomers.

The more you blur the lines between being friends and colleague, the more difficult it can be to switch between the two, and the more you open yourself up to potentially problematic situations. But there is being friendly, and being friends. We should all do the former, but the latter is a delicate balance to negotiate, as these examples demonstrate.

Scenario one: the internal promotion

You and another member of the department have become friends. You meet up during the holidays, your partners have been introduced, and there are plans to go away together one weekend. But a promotion has come up that you both want to go for. For you, this isn’t a problem, but your colleague is “hurt” that you are going for her “dream job”.

What do you do?

First off, apply for the promotion. Decisions about your career must be your own; the opinions of your colleagues are irrelevant. Secondly, restore the balance between work and friendship. Some people can separate emotions and work, this colleague clearly can’t. Stay pleasant, but don’t allow yourself to be drawn into conversations about how hurt she is.

How could it have been avoided?

It’s hard to predict how someone is going to react when situations pit you against one another, be it a department review or a staffroom competition. The most innocuous events can bring out someone’s competitive streak. The biggest clue is listening to how they talk about other staff members in these situations. The way they talk about them could one day be how they talk about you, so think about this before you get too close.

Scenario two: the group chat

A WhatsApp group was set up to organise who was bringing what for a staff lunch, and it’s been left running with inane chatter and random memes being shared. Two faculty members aren’t included because one wasn’t working the day of the lunch, and the other doesn’t have WhatsApp. Now in the workroom people are using the chat whilst sat together, and it’s creating a funny atmosphere. You’re not comfortable about it, but don’t want to leave the group as you’re worried that will make it even more awkward.

What do you do?

Stop using the chat group. For some departments, a group chat can be lovely and supportive (as well as being incredibly handy for helpful reminders or updates like "non-uniform day" and "the car park is blocked") but if it is at the exclusion of others, then it just isn’t worth it.

How can you avoid it?

Invite everyone. The easiest thing to do is to include everyone. If people don’t join in, then that is their decision; it’s not because they’ve been deliberately left out. This approach will avoid bad feelings and ensure that cliques aren’t formed.

Scenario three: different rules for some

Your line manager’s best friend is in your department, and doesn’t know the meaning of the word "deadline". His moderation is never in on time, his data is constantly entered late, and he doesn’t even manage to be there for the start of department meetings anymore. You never see it being picked up, and feel like everyone else has a different rule book to work from.

What do you do?

Keep your own counsel. Don’t moan about it to others, just focus on your own work and your own job. If something impacts you directly, then you can raise it with your manager. Otherwise, for your own sanity, try not to let it get to you.

How can you avoid it?

Comparison is the theft of joy, and there is nothing to be gained from dwelling on the different ways people are treated. You never know what is going on with other people, if there is disciplinary action already being taken, or if there are good reasons for someone’s behaviour. The main point is: this doesn’t have to affect you. Take pride in your own work, and your own good timekeeping.

Grainne Hallahan has been teaching English in Essex for 10 years. She is part of the #TeamEnglish Twitter group

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