Friendships at work can be a harbor in hard times, providing a much-needed refuge from unstable work conditions and bad bosses. In a survey of more than 195,600 employees, Gallup found that 20% of U.S. employees said they had a best friend at work. This camaraderie pays off: Gallup also found that employees with best friends had stronger engagement at work.
But these bonds can also entangle employees in a mess of hurt feelings and awkwardness. Patricia Sias, a University of Arizona researcher who studies workplace friendships, found that a promotion is one of the five primary reasons those friendships deteriorate.
When you and your close work friend are both competing for a job promotion, tensions arise as you balance career ambitions with friendship. Friends give unconditional support in our most vulnerable hours, while co-workers’ support must, by the definition of the role, come with limits.
And unlike romantic relationships, you may need to preserve such relationships to keep your job.
“If you break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, you have the option to never see them again,” Sias said. “But if you break up with a friend at work ― unless one of you quits and especially if you’re interdependent and you need each other ― you have to see them every day. It’s very painful for people.”
If you emerge the victor and get the job promotion to do the project or manage the team of your dreams, maintaining a relationship gets tricky and awkward.
It can be done, but it takes extra work.
1. Accept that your relationship will have to change
You may think you can carry on your relationship as usual after you get a promotion. But friendship, even in the best circumstances, takes time and effort. In an elevated role, this can be more difficult.
Jessica Methot is a human resources management researcher at Rutgers University who has studied the tensions built within workplace friendships in insurance companies, restaurants and retail settings. In a 2015 study, she found that friendships can make employees feel more trust, more alive and positively energized. But maintaining the dual roles of friend and colleague can also be draining.
If you get promoted over your friend into a position with more power, Methot recommends prioritizing the role of objective colleague first, by being strategic about how your personal interactions will look to colleagues.
“You’re going to have to privilege the professional aspect of the relationship,” Methot said. “It’s really important for the person who was promoted to maintain a professional image as well where they aren’t seemingly privileging their friend, giving them better shifts, or giving them useful resources, or sharing privileged information that they aren’t sharing with the rest of employees.”
This can mean limiting your one-on-one time at work. “If we see the supervisor and their friend chatting or whispering all the time, it’s really going to make the rest of their co-workers concerned about what is happening and that they are not being fully involved,” Methot said.
But don’t overcompensate on this new boundary by treating your friend worse than others, Sias said: “You need to be prepared to explain your decisions.”
2. Talk through what your future will look like
Talking about the promotion is both a basic task and a monumental undertaking. You may fall under the psychological trap called the “illusion of transparency,” in which you overestimate how well you know the thoughts and feelings of people you are close with. In other words, you may think you know your work friend well enough that you do not have to talk about it.
But you must communicate about the job change, both for your friendship and your professional reputation. “I think you do need to have an expectations-setting conversation to really revisit what your friendship looks like going forward and what both of you need out of it at that point,” said Melody Wilding, an executive coach and licensed social worker.
When you are talking about it, Methot said, you should dwell less on why you were promoted over your friend and more on how this will change your future relationship. She suggests asking your friend, “How can we move forward with this?”
3. Acknowledge your friend’s hurt feelings
Sias recommends acknowledging the other person’s feelings in your conversation with them: “It shows respect to the person that you’ve acknowledged their side of it.”
If your work friend is hurt by the promotion outcome, you should focus on their feelings more than on your own promotion, Wilding said. “The best way to get over hurt emotions is to get through them, and the best way to do that is to communicate about them,” she said.
You could say, “I know this was important to you. How are you doing?” instead of, “Oh, I know I got this promotion over you. How are you feeling about that?” Wilding said.
If your work friend is openly jealous, do not get defensive about the emotion. Instead, ask questions about it. If you are told that you “stole” the promotion, Wilding suggests validating and mirroring back the same language instead of challenging them with, “That’s not what happened!”
“I would say, ‘I understand you’re feeling like I stole this from you.’ Say the words back to them to make sure they understand that they are being heard,” Wilding said. Then you can follow that up with, “I want to understand more about where that is coming from.”
4. Master the impulse to fix your friend’s feelings
Understand that you cannot control your friend’s reactions. If they are not as enthusiastic as you want about your promotion, do not try to change that.
Wilding said employees can feel that they have to fix their friend’s feelings, but, “That’s not really our responsibility. Our responsibility is to be empathetic and to communicate to the extent that we can.“
Do not go above and beyond your role to make your friend feel better about the situation.
“Watch that you’re not subconsciously trying to make it up for your friend in other ways, because I think we do that where we feel like, ‘Oh, I can fix this hurt by giving them more favorable opportunities,’” Wilding said.
5. Watch your language
Not getting a promotion can sting. As Methot put it, a promotion is a “reflection on each of the parties in terms of their performance and their status” and can signal to an unpromoted employee that perhaps they aren’t good enough.
Be sensitive to your co-worker’s feelings by not gloating about it in front of them. Avoid the dichotomous language of competition of “winning” and “losing,” and “success” and “failure” to discuss how you got the promotion and they didn’t.
“‘Received,’ ‘put into a new position,’ ‘taking on a new role’ would be a much better way to frame it,” Sias said.
If you’re a good friend, you already understand that you should not lord the promotion over your work friend. But you should also avoid direct comparisons between the two of you when talking about it, such as, “Well, I’ve performed better.” Instead of using “better fit,” try “good fit,” Methot suggested.
Talking about the promotion with your friend means understanding that your promotion does not mean their failure.
“Especially in the workplace, there are so many variables that go into who is getting a promotion over someone else,” Wilding said. “It’s really about the person that is going to be the right fit for that role rather than someone winning or losing.”