Work Parties

Navigating the Line Between Friendship and Professionalism

Should you drink at the holiday party? 

Well, if you are wondering if you should drink to excess the answer is ‘no’. However, if you are asking whether you should form close, personal relationships with people at work, the answer is ‘yes.’ I faced a similar conundrum in my first full-time job. Not four weeks in, coworkers organized a party bus to take us to different bars around the city. I was nervous and wasn’t sure how much I could really relax. The event was not work-sponsored, but it was full of coworkers. The line between work and friendship was blurring and I had no idea what I was doing. Many graduating college students might face similar situations.

Luckily, new college grads can rest easy knowing that research suggests there are career benefits of having friends at work. In fact, research shows that new employees who have stronger and larger networks of friends at work better integrate themselves into the social fabric of the firm (Morrison, 2002). Additionally, employees who have strong work friendships are more committed to the organization and have greater role clarity (the sense of knowing the responsibilities and boundaries of one’s work). The same study also found that new employees who form friendships with people above them in the organizational hierarchy also know more about the organization, which gives new meaning to “having friends in high places”.

Friendship networks are different from typical information networks, or connections based on the exchange of job-related knowledge. Purely information-based relationships – aka work friends – can be valuable. However, research suggests that more complex work relationships, when a colleague is both a source for information and friendship, are actually much stronger than ties that are exclusively one or the other (Cotton, Shen, & Livne-Tarandach, 2011). When your friends work with you, you can turn to them for help because they are trusted members of your inner circle.

So, new graduates starting full time careers have plenty of reasons to invest in making at least a couple close friends at work – people you might even consider joining on a party bus. Now, that is not license to get out of control at the company holiday party. However, if you let trust and self-disclosure build gradually, like any other close relationship, you will find that friendship networks are not purely a means to an end. Instead, friendships at work can be a rich source for support, guidance, and collegiality.


Cotton, R. D., Shen, Y., & Livne-Tarandach, R. (2011). On becoming extraordinary: The content and structure of the developmental networks of Major League Baseball Hall of Famers. Academy of Management Journal, 54(1), 15-46.

Morrison, E. W. (2002). Newcomers’ relationships: The role of social network ties during socialization. Academy of Management Journal, 45(6), 1149-1160.