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Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship


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Although many scholars and practitioners have assumed that workplace friendships lead to desirable organizational outcomes, a growing body of research suggests important complexities and downsides associated with workplace friendships. This suggests a need to better understand how and when workplace friendships may lead to harmful outcomes, especially in light of organizational and technological shifts that are changing the way employees connect. Drawing on theories of close relationships, social exchange, and boundary management, we present a theoretical framework that highlights how the four defining features of friendship (informality, voluntariness, communal norms, and socio-emotional goals) are in tension with four fundamental elements of organizational life (formal roles, involuntary constraints, exchange norms, and instrumental goals). We also highlight how mutual self-disclosure and perceived similarity develop and deepen friendships but also lead to downsides for individuals, groups, and organizations. We articulate how specific features of a focal friendship clique (e.g., closeness, maturity, and status of members) may amplify or buffer negative aspects and how social media affect friendship formation and tensions. Our theoretical framework should inform new theory and research on positive relationships at work, boundary management of professional and personal identities, and how changes to work and technology affect workplace relationships.
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QAcademy of Management Review
2018, Vol. 43, No. 4, 126.
University of Pennsylvania
Although many scholars and practitioners have assumed that workplace friendships
lead to desirable organizational outcomes, a growing body of research suggests im-
portant complexities and downsides associated with them. This indicates a need to
better understand how and when workplace friendships may lead to harmful outcomes,
especially in light of organizational and technological shifts that are changing the way
employees connect. Drawing on theories of close relationships, social exchange, and
boundary management, we present a theoretical framework highlighting how four de-
fining features of friendship (informality, voluntariness, communal norms, and socio-
emotional goals)are in tension with four fundamental elements of organizational life
(formal roles, involuntary constraints, exchange norms, and instrumental goals). We
also highlight how mutual self-disclosure and perceived similarity develop and deepen
friendships but also lead to downsides for individuals, groups, and organizations. We
articulate how specific features of a focal friendship clique (e.g., closeness, maturity,
and status of members) may amplify or buffer negative aspects and how social media
affect friendship formation and tensions. Our theoretical framework should inform new
theory and research on positive relationships at work and boundary management of
professional and personal identities, as well as how changes to work and technology
affect workplace relationships.
Friendships play a central part in peoples
lives, serving as a source of joy and meaning
across the life span (Goldman, Cooper, Ahern, &
Corsini, 1981; Rawlins, 1992), and both the quan-
tity and quality of interpersonal relationships
have been identified as perhaps the most reliable
indicators of happiness and life satisfaction for all
ages (Diener & Seligman, 2002; Vaillant, 2002).
Individuals thrive when they feel a sense of be-
longing and relatedness to others, and social
connections at work are no exception (Baumeister
& Leary, 1995; Brewer, 1991; Dutton & Ragins, 2007;
Ferris et al., 2009; Spreitzer, Lam, & Fritz, 2010;
Spreitzer, Sutcliffe, Dutton, Sonenshein, & Grant,
2005). In organizational settings, relationships
with peers significantly influence key employee
outcomes (Chiaburu & Harrison, 2008). Informal
social relationships at work offer numerous bene-
fits to individuals, such as providing instrumental
and emotional support (House, 1981; Karasek,
1979), fostering positive identity development
(Dutton, Roberts, & Bednar, 2010; Sluss & Ashforth,
2007) and socialization (Morrison, 2002), and
helping employees to flourish (Colbert, Bono, &
Purvanova, 2016). Friendships can also benefit
teams and organizations as a whole by facilitat-
ing cooperation and cohesion (Jehn & Shah, 1997),
driving creativity and innovation (Lu et al., 2017),
and even spurring the organizing process itself
(Weick, 1979). Given these diverse and well-
demonstrated benefits, it is not surprising that
scholarship in this domain has generally focused
on, and taken for granted, the positive effects of
friendship at work.
Yet, despite the seemingly obvious benefits of
workplace friendship, a growing body of schol-
arship suggests that there may be complexity and
downsides associated with friendships at work
(Berman, West, & Richter, 2002; Duffy, Ganster, &
Pagon, 2002; Ingram & Zou, 2008; Methot, LePine,
Podsakoff, & Christian, 2015). The notion that
kinshipties add undue complexity to the work-
place dates back centuries, to classic theories
of bureaucracy and social exchange within or-
ganizations, and has significantly influenced
Western approaches to organizational life (Blau,
We are grateful for helpful feedback from guest editor Kris
Byron, three anonymous reviewers, the AMR special issue
guest editor team, Sigal Barsade, Drew Carton, Stephanie
Creary, Adam Grant, Spencer Harrison, Mike Pratt, Beth
Schinoff, Danielle Tussing, participants in the Complexities of
Close Relationships symposium at the Academy of Manage-
ment annual meeting, the IESE International Conference on
Work and Family, and the Wharton IDEAS Lab.
Copyright of the Academy of M anagement, all rights reserved. Contents may not be c opied, emailed, posted to a listserv, or otherwise tr ansmitted without thecopyright holders
express written permission. Users may print, download, or email articles for individual use only.
1964; Parsons, 1949; Sanchez-Burks, 2002; Weber;
1947, 1968). More recent empirical research has
demonstrated the paradox that rewarding per-
sonal connections at work can also lead to detri-
mental outcomes for both friends and those
outside the friendship (Duffy et al., 2002; Dumas,
Phillips, & Rothbard, 2013; Elangovan & Shapiro,
1998; Fehr, 1996; Harrison & Wagner, 2016). For
example, friendships with coworkers may be-
come problematic if the behaviors required to
fulfill instrumental goals conflict with socioemo-
tional goals (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Biddle,
1986; Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Ingram & Zou, 2008;
Methot et al., 2015; Tesser, 1988), or if those ex-
cluded from the informal cliques of coworkers feel
ostracized and form their own subgroups, creat-
ing silos and reducing communication between
groups (Argote, Ingram, Levine, & Moreland, 2000;
Carton & Cummings, 2012; Reagans & McEvily,
2003). While these examples illustrate how work-
place friendships may lead to negative outcomes,
there is still no cohesive framework for un-
derstanding why, how, when, and for whom
friendships at work may be detrimental to orga-
nizational functioning. To understand how indi-
viduals, groups, and organizations can leverage
the myriad benefits of workplace friendships,
scholars must cultivate a more comprehensive
understanding of these friendshipsdark sides.
The need to better understand the potential
downsides of friendship in organizations is es-
pecially pertinent amid profound changes in the
nature of work and technology that are shifting
how we connect with colleagues, as well as the
boundaries between personal and professional
roles. Social interaction has become increasingly
central to organizational life (Grant & Parker,
2009; Oldham & Hackman, 2010). The interdepen-
dent nature of knowledge and service work is al-
tering how we form and maintain relationships in
organizations, blurring the distinction between
colleague and friend (Dumas & Sanchez-Burks,
2015; Kreiner, Hollensbe, & Sheep, 2009; Methot
et al., 2015; Morand,1995; Ollier-Malaterre, Rothbard,
& Berg, 2013). In addition to shifts in the nature of work
itself, technology continues to drastically re-
shape the way we connect and communicate
with colleagues (Leonardi & Vaast, 2017). In par-
ticular, the rise of social media enables novel
ways of connecting and communicating with
others (Ashforth, Kreiner, & Fugate, 2000; Belk,
2013; Leonardi & Vaast, 2017; Wajcman & Rose,
2011). The centrality of social media to our daily
lives encourages new forms of relating, blurring
the lines not only between what we do at work
and at home but also with whom we communi-
cate across these two domains (Kreiner et al.,
2009; Ollier-Malaterre et al., 2013). Given these
fundamental shifts in work and social connec-
tivity, it is especially critical to understand the ten-
sions associated with workplace friendships and
how new technologies mayamplify these tensions.
This article makes three key contributions. First,
we extend the literature on high-quality connec-
tions and close relationships at work (Dutton &
Heaphy, 2003; Ferris et al., 2009; Grant & Parker,
2009; Heaphy & Dutton, 2008; Methot et al., 2015;
Oldham & Hackman, 2010) by delineating why,
when, how, andfor whom workplace friendshipa
specific type of positiverelationship at work
(Dutton & Ragins, 2007)may lead to downsides
for organizations. To this end, we build on a lim-
ited body of research regarding the inherent ten-
sions that arise when friendships are enacted in
the workplace (e.g., Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Ingram
& Zou, 2008; Methot et al., 2015; Weber, 1968), and
we provide a theoretical framework that demon-
strates how the core tensions and relational pro-
cesses associated with workplace friendship can
negatively affect individual, group, and organi-
zational outcomes.
Second, we answer calls to better understand
how the nature of workplace relationships in-
fluences outcomes (Ferris et al., 2009; Hartup &
Stevens, 1997) by considering the ways factors
such as closeness, maturity, and the status of
a friendships members may amplify or buffer the
risk of downsides. In this sense, we also extend
a larger body of work focused on how the number
of friendship ties (e.g., Methot et al., 2015) or the
friendship network structure (e.g., Ingram & Zou,
2008; Klein, Lim, Saltz, & Mayer, 2004) impacts in-
dividual, group, and organizational functioning
by highlighting how particular features and types
of friendship can differentially influence organi-
zationally relevant outcomes.
Third, we advance nascent theory on changes
in work relationships (e.g., Grant & Parker, 2009;
Oldham & Hackman, 2010), as well as theory on
how technology is altering informal organiza-
tional relationships (e.g., Leonardi & Vaast, 2017;
Ollier-Malaterre et al., 2013), by demonstrating
how connecting with colleagues on social media
may alter the friendship formation process and
may amplify the tensions and dark sides of work-
place friendship.
2 OctoberAcademy of Management Review
What Is Workplace Friendship?
While friendships can take many forms, there
are four core features of friendship that differ-
entiate these bonds from other types of roles
and relationships. First, friendships are volun-
tary; unlike relationships with family members,
neighbors, or coworkers, friendships are chosen,
not imposed (Adams & Blieszner, 1994; Clark &
Reis, 1988; Fehr, 1996; Sias & Cahill, 1998). Sec-
ond, friendships are informal relationships in
the sense that there is a relative lack of stan-
dard rituals or nomenclature to guide role
expectations, unlike roles dictated by formal or-
ganizational hierarchies, such as supervisor/
subordinate relationships, and cultural institu-
tions, such as marriage (Adams & Blieszner,
1994: 163). Third, friendships are characterized by
communal norms, or an expectation that one will
give support based on need rather than on the
receipt of support (Clark & Mills, 1979; Goffman,
1961; Hartup & Stevens, 1997). Fourth, friendships
are driven by socioemotional goals; their primary
purpose is to foster affective and relational well-
being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Hays, 1985).
These qualities make workplace friendships
distinct from other positive relationships at
work, such as high-quality connections (Dutton
& Heaphy, 2003), formal mentorships (Kram &
Isabella, 1985), positive working relationships
between leaders and subordinates (Graen &
Uhl-Bien, 1995), and other close, positive rela-
tionships outside of work. The complexity of
both interpersonal relationships and modern
organizational life allows for various types of
friendships that are professional in nature.
Nonetheless, here our definition of workplace
friendshipsis limited to platonic (nonromantic)
relationships between individuals who currently
work in the same organization. Thus, based on
the core features of friendship and the above-
noted boundary conditions, we define workplace
friendship as a nonromantic, voluntary, and in-
formal relationship between current coworkers
that is characterized by communal norms and
socioemotional goals. While these core features of
friendship have been shown to remain consistent
across contexts (Hartup & Stevens, 1997), we argue
that when they exist within organizations, ten-
sions, complexity, and the potential for down-
sides arise.
Which Features of Organizational Life Make
Workplace Friendships Complicated?
The characteristics that differentiate friendship
from other relationships can be at odds with core
aspects of organizational life. In classic sociologi-
cal research on bureaucracy, scholars advocate
the eradication of friendships from organizations,
arguing that they threaten the instrumental goals
of firms and their members (Parsons, 1949; Weber,
1968). More recent research highlights the unique
tensions that arise when instrumental and affec-
tive goals blendin a given relationship or con-
text, as is often the case at work (Bridge & Baxter,
1992; Ingram & Zou, 2008; Methot et al., 2015;
Rawlins, 1992; Sias, Heath, Perry, Silva, & Fix, 2004).
We extend the limited research that explores the
tensions resulting from friendships in organiza-
tional settings. Specifically, we propose that the
four key features of friendship (informality, volun-
tariness, communal norms, and socioemotional
goals) conflict with four qualities that are present
in most organizations: formal roles, involuntary
relationships, exchange norms,andinstrumental
goals (Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Fehr, 1996; Goffman,
1961; Ingram& Zou, 2008; Sias & Cahill, 1998). These
forces complicate the enactment of friendship in
organizations, which we highlight below.
In organizations, many relationships and ac-
tivities are governed by formal, role-based inter-
actions; although informal relationships exist,
numerous involuntary constraints influence whom
individuals interact with on the job (Chandler,
1977; Ibarra, 1993; Weber, 1968). Outside organiza-
tional settings, individuals choose the people with
whom they wish to interact and socialize; in orga-
nizations, much social interaction is predetermined
by assignments to teams and organizational de-
partments. Moreover, the voluntary selection of
friends and the informal rules, socializing, and
communication styles that accompany these bonds
contrast with the formality and involuntary inter-
action often present in organizational life (Weber,
1968). In addition, instrumental goals that are cen-
tral to individualsand teamssuccess at work o ften
conflict with the socioemotional goals of friendship
(Ingram & Zou, 2008; Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek, &
Rosenthal, 1964). For example, if two team members
are friends and one is underperforming on a proj-
ect because of marital troubles, the friendship norm
of providing socioemotional support may conflict
with the desire to provide critical feedback to im-
prove task performance. Last, exchange-based or
2018 3Pillemer and Rothbard
tit-for-tatnorms, which are the dominant mode of
reciprocity in many organizational relationships,
can be at odds with the communal or needs-based
norms that characterize friendship (Blau, 1964; Clark
& Mills, 1979; Clark & Reis, 1988; Goffman, 1961;
Ingram & Zou, 2008).
In sum, these tensions introduce the potential
for downsides to friendship that are unique to or-
ganizations because they impact task perfor-
mance at the individual, team, and organizational
levels. In this article we examine individual,
group, and organizational downsides that stem
from these tensions between core features of
friendship and organizational life and that we
expect to have a broad-reaching impact on task
performance across a range of roles, organiza-
tions, and industries.
Which Relational Processes Drive Friendship
Development and Growth?
The literature on friendship and close relationships
shows that a range of individual and situational
factors influence the development of workplace
friendships, such as personality, proximity, and
cultural norms (Hom & Xiao, 2011; Sanchez-Burks,
2002; Sias & Cahill, 1998; Xin & Pearce, 1996). These
antecedents influence friendship formation, matu-
ration, and maintenance through two key rela-
tional processes that occur between individuals:
mutual self-disclosure (Derlega & Grzelak, 1979;
Jourard, 1959) and perceived similarity (Byrne,
1961, 1971; McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001).
Self-disclosure. Friendship is characterized
by mutual self-disclosure (Derlega & Grzelak,
1979; Derlega, Metts, Petronio, & Margulis, 1993;
Jourard, 1959). The beginning stages of a friend-
ship involve sharing descriptive personal infor-
mation and commentary on neutral topics, while
later stages are more likely to involve sharing
evaluative or affective personal information on
ones innermost opinions and emotions (Altman
& Taylor, 1973; Goffman, 1961; Taylor & Altman,
1987). Longitudinal research on friendship forma-
tion shows that individuals become increas-
ingly intimate and less cautious with their
self-disclosures, which shifts the nature of a
friendship from social companion to trusted
confidante (Clark & Reis, 1988; Hays, 1985; Sias
& Cahill, 1998). Reciprocal sharing and valida-
tion of personal values, preferences, and beliefs
lead to feelings of socioemotional closeness
(Ensari & Miller, 2002), liking (Collins & Miller,
1994), and affect-based trust (Chua, Ingram, &
Morris, 2008; McAllister, 1995) and are the key
drivers of intimacy in relationships (Clark & Reis,
Engaging in mutual self-disclosure of increas-
ingly intimate, personal information and recipro-
cal validation brings friends closer as disclosures
involve greater vulnerability and less caution
(Levesque, Steciuk, & Ledley, 2002). However, if
self-disclosures emphasize dissimilarities (e.g.,
Dumas et al., 2013; Liao, Chuang, & Joshi, 2008)
between individuals, they may backfire and lead
to interpersonal distance, which is why mutual
perceived similarity is a critical mechanism for
promoting friendships (Altman & Taylor, 1973;
Byron & Laurence, 2015; Phillips, Rothbard, &
Dumas, 2009; West, Magee, Gordon, & Gullett,
Perceived similarity. Friendship stems from
the fundamental tendency to be attracted to and
pursue deeper bonds with similar others, oth-
erwise known as the homophily principle
(McPherson et al., 2001). The idea that individuals
voluntarily befriend people they perceive to be
like themselves dates back to classic writings
by Aristotle and Plato and is a well-established
finding in the study of close relationships
(Aristotle, 1934; Bahns, Crandall, Gillath, &
Preacher, 2017; Byrne, 1961, 1971; Lazarsfeld &
Merton, 1954; McPherson et al., 2001; Plato, 1968).
Similarity-attraction and homophily of social
ties occur on the basis of not only salient de-
mographic or surface-level qualities, such as
age, race, and gender (Ibarra, 1993; McPherson
et al., 2001; Nahemow & Lawton, 1975), but
also deep-levelcharacteristics, such as core
values, beliefs, interests, and personal idiosyn-
crasies (Byrne, 1961, 1971; Byron & Laurence,
2015; Harrison, Price, & Bell, 1998; Phillips & Loyd,
The importance of perceived similarity ex-
tends beyond initial attraction as friends develop
shared understandings of the world through
processes of social comparison and imitation
(Erikson, 1988; Gibbons, 2004). Longitudinal stud-
ies of friendship development confirm that mu-
tual perceptions and reinforcement of similarity
remain an important feature of successful friend-
ships beyond the initial formation stages, pro-
pelling these bonds to mature into deeper
friendships (Clark & Reis, 1988; Hays, 1985; Sias
& Cahill, 1998). Thus, individuals are more likely
not only to be initially drawn to similar others but
4 OctoberAcademy of Management Review
also to maintain perceptions of similarity by
affirming shared qualities through mutual self-
di sc lo su re (Altman & Taylor, 1973; Kelley et al., 1983),
which helps to maintain and deepen friendships
(Harrison et al., 1998; Kelley et al., 1983; Rusbult,
Thus, self-disclosure and perceived similarity
are the core interpersonal mechanisms that drive
the formation, maintenance, and deepening of
friendships. Figure 1 depicts the dynamic in-
terplay among self-disclosure, perceived simi-
larity, and the relational state of friendship. A
bidirectional relationship occurs between self-
disclosure and perceived similarity: mutual self-
disclosure allows individuals to discover and
perceive greater deep-level similarity (Ensari &
Miller, 2002); in turn, greater perceptions of simi-
larity lead individuals to disclose more (Collins &
Miller, 1994). As described above, perceived sim-
ilarity fosters the development of friendship (see
Byrne, 1971, and McPherson & Smith-Lovin, 1987),
and friendship increases the propensity to self-
disclose (Altman & Taylor, 1973; Hays, 1985).
Although several studies suggest that work-
place friendships are not uniformly positive, these
findings are largely disparate and disconnected.
To guide our understanding of why, how, when,
and for whom workplace friendships can be
harmful, we move from a consideration of why
friendship is more complicated in organizations
to a discussion of when, how, and to whom these
costs occur. While mutual self-disclosure and
perceived similarity between colleagues encour-
age the development of friendship and its asso-
ciated benefits, they also pose risks to task
performance and functioning at the individual,
group, and organizational levels when enacted
within organizations.
Although most research on friendship focuses
on the consequences for members of the friend-
ship, including individual and interpersonal out-
comes (e.g., Hartup & Stevens, 1997; Hays, 1985;
Ingram & Zou, 2008; Jehn & Shah, 1997; Methot
et al., 2015), research on social exchange and cli-
que formation suggests that we should also con-
sider the effects on those outside these bonds,
as well as on the organizations functioning
(e.g., Blau, 1964; Brewer, 1979; Tichy, 1973). For
example, informal activities that bring people
together in organizations (such as gossip) have
been shown to lead to solidarity among the in-
cluded individuals while simultaneously distanc-
ing them from others (Dunbar, 2004; Melwani, 2012).
Thus, we focus on the downsides of friendship that
negatively impact both individual and group
outcomes, as well as broader organizational out-
comes that impact task performance and orga-
nizational functioning. Moreover, responding to
scholarsrecommendations, we examine the
nature, not just the number, of friendships in
order to fully understand their impact (Berscheid,
Snyder, & Omoto, 1989; Ferris et al., 2009; Hartup
& Stevens, 1997; Hays, 1985; Ingram & Zou, 2008;
Sias & Cahill, 1998) by considering how features
of a focal friendship clique (e.g., closeness, ma-
turity, member status) may affect our proposed
outcomes. Last, we highlight how fundamen-
tal technological shifts affect the dynamics of
workplace friendships and their associated
Individual-Level Downsides of
Workplace Friendship
Although mutual self-disclosure and perceived
similarity promote friendship between colleagues,
they can also lead to downsides when enacted
in an organizational context with formal roles,
involuntary constraints, instrumental goals, and
exchange norms. We discuss below how these
relational processes (see Figure 1) and tensions
(see Table 1) can affect individual-, group-, and
organization-level outcomes that negatively in-
fluence task performance.
A key downside of friendship for individuals is
distraction from work-related tasks. This down-
side stems from the communal (i.e., needs-based,
not exchange-based) norms and socioemotional
goals governing self-disclosure and their tension
with exchange norms and instrumental goals
within organizations. Because mutual self-
disclosure is a key mechanism driving friendship,
individuals in both developing and established
workplace friendships will engage in it fre-
quently. However, when one member of a friend-
ship dyad discloses personal information and
feelings, the other member needs to provide
validation and socioemotional support to main-
tain the relationship. Friendsdevotion of re-
sources to social relationships that go beyond
work-based interdependencies and goals may
compromise instrumental goals (Bridge & Baxter,
1992; Hobfoll, 2002; Sanchez-Burks, 2002). Friends
2018 5Pillemer and Rothbard
The Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship
Organizational context
Involuntary Exchange
Informal Socio-
Voluntary Communal
Proposition 2a-b
Proposition 1a-d
Proposition 3a-c
Perceived similarity
Member status
*Distraction from instrumental goals
*Reduced preparation for and
deliberation on complex decisions
*Inhibited knowledge sharing
*Reduced perceptions of procedural
and distributive justice
*Interrole conflict between informal
and formal roles
are expected to listen, provide advice, and ex-
press empathy regardless of whether it is con-
venient or how equalthese exchanges are
(Jett & George, 2003; Methot et al., 2015; Toegel,
Kilduff, & Anand, 2013). While individuals in
friendships are likely to feel mutually supported
over the long run, there can be periods of time
in which one friend requires more substantial
socioemotional support (Clark & Reis, 1988; Hays,
1985), which can be problematic for the other
friends productivity.
In other words, friendsneeds to self-disclose
and seek validation are, by definition, not always
equal, predictable, and convenient and may be
experienced as intrusions to task-based produc-
tivity. An intrusion is an unexpected encounter
initiated by another person that interrupts the
flow and continuity of an individualswork(Jett &
George, 2003: 485). These interpersonal intrusions
can then lead to the intrapersonal experience of
distraction, or a psychological reaction triggered
by external stimuli or secondary activities that in-
terrupt focused concentration on a primary task
(Jett & George, 2003: 500). For example, when a vis-
ibly upset colleague knocks on a friendsoffice
door, they do so expecting that the friend will lis-
ten and provide validation, fulfilling the expec-
tation of needs-based availability (Fehr, 1996)
and communal support (Goffman, 1961; Methot
et al., 2015). Because employees feel a stronger
sense of socioemotional indebtedness to friends
than to mere colleagues, the need to help resolve
a friends issues will feel more personally mean-
ingful (Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992; Weiss &
Cropanzano, 1996).
Thus, individuals are likely not only to give
more time and resources to intrusions from friends
but also to engage with greater psychological
immersion in these conversations (Clark & Reis,
1988). The depth of attention given to a non-task-
related interruption has an additional carryover
or residueeffect, making it even more difficult
to transition back to work tasks even when the
intrusion itself has concluded; in this way, the
interruption interferes with individualsfunc-
tioning in their roles as employees (Leroy, 2009;
Rothbard & Wilk, 2011). Compared to breaks that
employees actively choose, intrusions are likely
to be less restorative and, thus, more resource
depleting than rejuvenating, which can further
exacerbate the negative effects on core tasks and
can ultimately inhibit individual performance
(Metiu & Rothbard, 2013; Trougakos, Beal, Green,
& Weiss, 2008).
Proposition 1a: Compared to individ-
uals in coworker relationships, indi-
viduals in workplace friendships are
likely to experience more frequent and
intense socioemotional intrusions from
social interactions, resulting in greater
distraction from instrumental goals.
The closeness of friendships is an important
determinant of the amount and intensity of at-
tention required during intrusions and will influ-
ence the extent to which these intrusions reduce
task-based focus and performance (Hobfoll, 2002;
Jett & George, 2003; Perlow, 1999). As friendships
become closer, personal disclosures become in-
creasingly deeper and laden with more affective
and evaluative statements. While friendlyre-
lations (Bridge & Baxter, 1992) or casual friend-
ships are marked by amicable but superficial
personal exchanges, close friends tend to serve
Tensions and Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship
Level Propositions Primary Tensions Dark Sides
Individual 1a, 1b Communal/exchange Distraction from instrumental goals
Individual 1c, 1d Socioemotional/instrumental Interrole conflict between informal and formal roles
Group 2a, 2b Socioemotional/instrumental Reduced preparation for and deliberation in complex decisions
Organization 3a, 3b Informal/formal Inhibited knowledge sharing
Organization 3c Communal/exchange Reduced perceptions of procedural and distributive justice
2018 7Pillemer and Rothbard
as confidantes for more private, sensitive issues
and are expected to provide emotional support
(Altman & Taylor, 1973; Clark & Reis, 1988; Hays,
1985; Toegel et al., 2013). Close friendships may
develop slowly over time, but closeness can also
occur more rapidly because of intensive inter-
personal experiences involving self-disclosure
and relationship building (Aron, Melinat, Aron,
Vallone, & Bator, 1997). As workplace friendships
increase in intimacy, individuals become in-
creasingly identified with their friendsgoals and
will therefore be more invested in their well-being
(Aron et al., 1992). Closeness also breeds less
caution in self-disclosures and increases the
tendency for friends to share intimate details
about personal and work problems, such as
marital woes or issues with a supervisor (Sias &
Cahill, 1998).
Thus, intrusions from close friends are detri-
mental to workersability to focus on instru-
mental goals not only because of the time spent
receiving disclosures but also because such
disclosures are more emotionally engaging,
less likely to be related to work tasks (Clark &
depleting (Lanaj, Johnson, & Wang, 2016; Toegel
et al., 2013). Over time, the provision of needs-
based support to close workplace friends and
a focus on socioemotional goals rather than in-
strumental goals can divert valuable cogni-
tive and emotional resources from core tasks
(Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985; Hobfoll, 2002;
Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001), which can
inhibit individual performance.
Proposition 1b: The closeness of a
friendship moderates the relationship
between socioemotional intrusions and
degree of distraction from instrumental
goals such that intrusions from close
workplace friends will be more dis-
tracting than intrusions from less close
A second downside for individuals in work-
place friendships is interrole conflict. This stems
from the juxtaposition of socioemotional versus
instrumental goals and from the tension between
the informality of friendship and the formality of
organizational roles and structure. At work, in-
strumental goals are paramount, and individuals
formal role obligations are expected to take
precedence over informal ties; thus, workplace
friendships increase the potential for interrole
conflict (Fisher & Gitelson, 1983; Grayson, 2007;
Kahn et al., 1964) when the optimal behavior as
a friend fundamentally opposes ones optimal
behavior as an employee of the organization
(Bridge & Baxter, 1992). Although few studies have
directly examined outcomes of friendship-work
conflict (cf. Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Methot et al.,
2015; Sias et al., 2004), conflict between work and
personal roles has been linked to reduced satis-
faction and can be problematic for task-based
performance (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985; Hirsch
& Rapkin, 1986; Sias et al., 2004).
Paradoxically, the relational processes that
drive friendship development also make friends
more likely to experience interrole conflict. In-
dividuals are more likely to seek out informal
interactions with others who share similar skills
and interests (Bahns et al., 2017; Lincoln & Miller,
1979; Schneider, 1987), as well as similar status
and career stage. The similar structural posi-
tions (Burt, 1997) and interests that often charac-
terize workplace friendships suggest that these
communal-based relationships are also more
likely to face competitive challenges, such as
vying for the same promotion, or even smaller,
less tangible resources, such as a supervisors
time and attention (Methot et al., 2015; Galinsky
& Schweitzer, 2015). Thus, the homophily that
brings friends together sets them up to desire the
same organizational resources and opportuni-
ties, leading to potential conflicts between the
drives to compete (in service of their formal role
and instrumental goals) and cooperate (in ser-
vice of their informal role and socioemotional
Proposition 1c: Compared to individ-
uals in coworker relationships, indi-
viduals in workplace friendships are
more likely to experience interrole con-
flict between informal and formal roles
at work because of greater similarity in
social structure and interests and more
ambiguity regarding whether to privi-
lege instrumental versus socioemotional
goals with workplace friends.
Because perceived similarity and self-disclosure
increase as friendships become closer, more
intimate friendships should increase the like-
lihood of experiencing interrole conflict, since
individuals will be more likely to feel con-
flicted about whether to privilege instrumental
or socioemotional goals. Just as concerns over
8 OctoberAcademy of Management Review
socioemotional wealth can be sources of con-
flict in family businesses (Gomez-Mejia, Cruz,
Berrone, & De Castro, 2012), workplace friend-
ships also complicate instrumental goal pur-
suit. Organizational roles tend to have a strong
influence on behavior because they are char-
acterized by formal obligations and are neces-
sary for ones livelihood (Adams & Blieszner,
1994; Blau, 1964; Magee & Galinsky, 2008). Thus,
the pushof instrumental goals and formal
role obligations is likely to override the socio-
emotional goals and informal, felt obligations
to casual friends. However, if friendships are
closer, the heightened socioemotional invest-
ment and communal norms of this bond (and
the pain of a prospective loss of a valuable
friendship) make it less desirable for an indi-
vidual to act in service of instrumental goals
(Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Mitchell, Holtom,
Lee, Sablynski, & Erez, 2001), which increases
the likelihood that such individuals will feel
conflict stemming from these competing drives,
reducing focus and motivation on individual
task performance.
Nonetheless, very close or bestfriends should
elicit less role conflict for the opposite reason:
the socioemotional goals of this relationship
will be unequivocally more important than the
instrumental goals presented in a competitive
situation. Thus, very close or best friends will
experience less conflict about privileging their
workplace friendship over organizational roles
(Sias & Cahill, 1998). When individuals be-
come very close friends, they experience an
overlapping sense of self such that the goals
and well-being of a friend become more impor-
tant to ones own happiness and self-concept
(Aron et al., 1992; Clark & Reis, 1988). It is there-
fore in individualsbest interest to privilege
a very close friendship in order to avoid the im-
mense socioemotional costs of friction or disso-
lution of these valuable bonds. Moreover, very
close or established relationships have great-
er tensility”—that is, the ability to withstand
strain (Dutton & Heaphy, 2003). As individuals
become closer and more secure in their rela-
tionships, they are better equipped to find in-
tegrative solutions to seemingly unresolvable
clashes between socioemotional and instru-
mental goals (Fry, Firestone, & Williams, 1983).
Thus, in situations of unavoidable conflict, such
as when forgoing instrumental goals means
losing ones job or harming others, very close
friends will more likely be able to productively
resolve the issue in a way that maximizes value
without compromising task performance for both
Proposition 1d: There is an inverted
U-shaped relationship between workplace-
friendship closeness and the experience of
interrole conflict such that an employee
will experience greater role conflict with
moderately close friends than with casual
or very close friends.
Group-Level Downsides of Workplace Friendship
A wide body of research has revealed that
peoples tendency to voluntarily seek out and
maintain similar core values and beliefs in
workplace relationships can lead to positive in-
terpersonal outcomes for dyads or small groups.
Specifically, the feelings of belongingness and
affect-based trust that result from perceived
similarity and mutual self-disclosure are asso-
ciated with the interpersonal outcomes of co-
hesion (Beal, Cohen, Burke, & McLendon, 2003;
Gully, Devine, & Whitney, 1995) and reduced re-
lational and emotional conflict (Jehn, Northcraft,
& Neale, 1999; Pelled, Eisenhardt, & Xin, 1999).
However, while perceived similarity and seamless
cooperation are useful for tasks focused on maxi-
mizing productivity (Jehn & Shah, 1997; Tyler &
Blader, 2001), the ability to make complex deci-
sions may be impaired in dyads or groups in
which all or the majority of members are workplace
This reduction in complex decision mak-
ing stems from the homogeneity of characteris-
tics and beliefs and a focus on socioemotional
as opposed to instrumental goals (Loyd, Wang,
Phillips, & Lount, 2013; Phillips, 2003).
Thus, a key downside for dyads and groups of
friends is lower-quality decision processes in
situations that benefit from diverse viewpoints.
This downside emerges because friendships
As the number of members in a group increases, there are
more opportunities for discrepancies in the degree of friend-
ship among members. The likelihood that all members will be
friends is contingent on various factors (size of group, length of
time working together, individual and organizational attri-
butes) that are beyond the scope of this discussion. However, to
the extent that most group members are friends, we expect
these dynamics to play out in a similar fashion. Future re-
search should examine the impact of the proportion of friends
on group outcomes.
2018 9Pillemer and Rothbard
privilege socioemotional goals as people strive
to maintain greater perceived similarity, which
can come at the expense of instrumental goals.
This process is particularly heightened when the
formal roles and obligations of the organization
conflict with the informal nature of friendship
ties. Indeed, even without membersgreater de-
sire for perceived similarity, dyads and groups
tend to focus on common or similar information
in an effort to avoid the discomfort that accom-
panies disagreement (de Wit, Greer, & Jehn, 2012;
Kerr & Tindale, 2004; Stasser & Titus, 1985, 2003),
which often compromises the quality of deci-
sions. Lack of diversity (or homogeneity) among
collaborators only tends to amplify these nega-
tive effects on the expression of disparate view-
points (Gaither, Apfelbaum, Birnbaum, Babbitt, &
Sommers, in press; Phillips, 2003; Phillips & Loyd,
2006; van Knippenberg, De Dreu, & Homan, 2004).
When group members share social characteristics
and identify with one another, they are also less
likely to share differing information and opinions,
because this would violate group expectations
of concurrence seeking (Baumeister & Leary, 1995;
Brewer & Gardner, 1996; Hogg & Terry, 2000;
Phillips, 2003; Phillips & Loyd, 2006; Thompson,
Peterson, & Brodt, 1996). Thus, friends will be less
likely to disagree with one another, and when
they do disagree, they will hesitate to voice con-
trasting opinions for fear that they may harm the
relationship (e.g., Loyd et al., 2013).
Although concern for socioemotional goals is
helpful in tasks requiring group harmony and
cooperation (Jehn & Shah, 1997; Tyler & Blader,
2001), such a focus may hinder the performance of
tasks that benefit from diverse viewpoints (Janis,
1982; Loyd et al., 2013; Sanchez-Burks, 2002) and
from critical evaluation of differing perspectives
(Chen, Shechter, & Chaiken, 1996; Fry et al., 1983;
Thompson et al., 1996). In general, compared to
homogeneous groups, diverse groups spend
more time discussing and processing disparate
information, ultimately leading to better outcomes
in complex decision-making tasks (Galinsky et al.,
2015; Hoever, van Knippenberg, van Ginkel, &
Barkema, 2012; Homan, van Knippenberg, Van
Kleef, & De Dreu, 2007; Post & Byron, 2015;
Sommers, 2006). Conversely, when individuals
focus on positive, informal, or social bonds with
team members perceived to be similar, they fo-
cus less on task-related preparation, which leads
to poorer group problem solving (Loyd et al.,
2013). Moreover, when teams of friends have
relationship-based conflict, their performance
may be more likely to suffer compared to that of
teams composed of nonfriends (Hood, Cruz, &
Bachrach, 2017). Thus, in dyads and groups of
friends, the tendency to privilege perceptions of
similarity and socioemotional concerns over in-
strumental goals can result in lower group levels
of both deliberation and preparation, which can
undermine the quality of decisions on complex
Proposition 2a: Compared to dyads
and groups of colleagues who are not
friends, dyads and groups of workplace
friends engage in lower levels of prep-
aration for and deliberation in com-
plex decision-making tasks because of
friendsgreater interpersonal similarity
and their heightened focus on socio-
emotional goals versus instrumental
Nonetheless, employeesin long-standing friend-
ships may actually be able to share divergent
opinions more easily because they are secure in
these relationships. When friendships are in the
early stages, individuals use greater caution as
they disclose ideas and are more eager to affirm
similarities so as to reinforce bonds and not
alienate budding friendships (Altman & Taylor,
1973; Hays, 1985; Sias & Cahill, 1998). However, when
individuals feel more secure as these relation-
ships mature, they can challenge friendsviews
without fear of harming the bond (Bartholomew &
Horowitz, 1991; Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Edmondson,
1999). The organizational research supporting
this view (e.g., Edmondson, 1999; Jehn & Shah,
1997; Shah, Dirks, & Chervany, 2006) suggests that,
in some cases, having stronger ties can facilitate
greater psychological safety, or a shared belief
that the team is open for interpersonal risk-taking,
as well as mutual respect and comfort being
oneself (Edmondson, 1999: 354). For friends to feel
comfortable violating norms of reinforcing simi-
larities, their attachments must be secure enough
that revealing divergent opinions will not disrupt
the bond. Thus, friends in the early stages of
friendship will be more likely to engage in lower
levels of preparation and deliberation as they
focus on fulfilling socioemotional goals and
seeking concurrence. However, mature workplace
friendships are likely to be more stable, allowing
individuals to establish norms for constructive
disagreement (Shah et al., 2006). This research
10 OctoberAcademy of Management Review
suggests that group preparation and deliberation
will increase in groups composed of members in
mature friendships (Loyd et al., 2013).
Proposition 2b: The maturity of a dyads
or groups friendship moderates the re-
lationship between the presence of
workplace friendship(s) and the dyads
or groups degree of preparation and
deliberation in complex decision tasks
such that levels of preparation and de-
liberation will be greater among dyads
and groups in the mature stages of
friendship (versus those in the earlier
stages of friendship).
Organization-Level Downsides of
Workplace Friendship
Anyone who has endured the social complex-
ities of a school cafeteria can attest that close
and exclusive friendship groups can lead to
perceptions of exclusion and the subsequent de-
velopment of social cliques. The fact that organi-
zational life involves a great deal of interpersonal
interaction based on involuntary constraints sug-
gests that members outside the voluntary bound-
aries of a friendship will notice a contrast between
their formal roles and the informal bonds their
colleagues share. This awareness of others
friendships can be detrimental to outsiders and
can have negative consequences for organiza-
tional functioning.
When two employees form a workplace friend-
ship, other colleagues begin to associate them
as part of the same clique. Although any two
individuals who spend time together might be
categorized similarly, a workplace friendship is
characterized by self-disclosure and reinforcing
perceptions of similarity that lead to personal
identification between individuals (Ashforth,
Schinoff, & Rogers, 2016) and to otherspercep-
tionsofthemasaningroup(Brewer, 1997). In-
dividuals involved in the friendship will gain
important ingroup socioemotional benefits
namely, feelings of belongingness and affect-
based trust (Brewer, 1991; Kahn & Antonucci, 1980;
Tajfel & Turner, 2004)but as these bonds become
closer, higher levels of similarity and intimate
self-disclosure can breed a stark sense of exclu-
sion, lack of connection to other employees, and
perceptions of a social clique (Melwani, 2012;
Tichy, 1973).
Acliqueisa subset of [organizational] mem-
bers who are more closely identified with an-
other [than other members] and who exchange
something among themselves . . . such as in-
formation, affect, friendship, and so forth
(Tichy, 1973: 197). Relationships perceived as
friendly relations,such as individuals chat-
ting briefly about their weekend in the hallway,
are unlikely to be perceived as exclusive be-
cause they may occur with many employees and
conflict less with organizational life (Bridge &
Baxter, 1992; Weber, 1968). However, the per-
ceived similarity and self-disclosure processes
that foster workplace friendships can make the
boundaries of this subgroup seem more im-
permeable (Kahn et al., 2018) to others in the
The mere perception that others have formed
a clique can lead to feelings of social rejection
(Ferris, Brown, Berry, & Lian, 2008; Ozcelik &
Barsade, 2011; Williams, 2001). Exclusion from
social situations can be unintentional (Sommer,
Williams, Ciarocco, & Baumeister, 2001) and
may result from seemingly minor events (Ferris
et al., 2008; Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000),
but they can still have powerful effects on others
(Gonsalkorale & Williams, 2007). Given that
these negative feelings can inflict emotional
pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003;
Macdonald & Leary, 2005) and also threaten
the fundamental need for belongingness, self-
esteem, and control (Baumeister & Leary, 1995;
Ferris et al., 2008), perceptions of exclusive
social factions are likely to push outsiders to
seek identification with another clique (Tichy,
Tushman, & Fombrun, 1979) or social subgroup
that will fulfill these needs (Brewer, 1991; Hogg
& Terry, 2000).
Carton and Cummings (2012) suggested that
identity-based subgroups form when members
of an organizational group perceive that they
share unique social characteristics. When
others see that two or more members of an or-
ganizational group have established friend-
ships they feel excluded from, this can provoke
disidentification with the focal dyad or clique
(e.g., Dukerich, Kramer, & McLean Parks, 1998;
Elsbach & Bhattacharya, 2001; Kreiner &
Ashforth, 2004; Sluss & Ashforth, 2007). Those
who feel excluded will start to define them-
selves as not members of that group and may
be more likely to form their own identity-based
relationships and cliques to feel connected to
2018 11Pillemer and Rothbard
others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). This process
can then lead to perceptions of impenetrable
boundaries, or fault lines, between groups of
friends (Lau & Murnighan, 1998).
Although social cliques and subgroups are
common in organizations (Carton & Cummings,
2012; Tichy, 1973), identity-based subgroups, or
those based on a shared social identity (Carton &
Cummings, 2012), can be detrimental to collec-
tive functioning and broader instrumental goals.
Liking ones colleagues has been shown to be
a key antecedent to seeking work-related as-
sistance and sharing task-related knowledge,
which are key for optimal task performance in
most modern organizations (Casciaro & Lobo,
2008; Gupta & Govindarajan, 2000; Reagans &
McEvily, 2003). Moreover, when teammates
share close informal ties, they are less likely to
seek knowledge from outside teams (Hansen,
Mors, & Løv ˚
as, 2005) and may be overly identi-
fied with these relationships, blinding them to
other important roles and connections (Sluss
& Ashforth, 2007). Consequently, a given work-
place friendship may set off a chain of relational
patterns through which collegial relationships
become friendship cliques (based on internal
closeness and external perceptions of impene-
trability), which can inhibit knowledge sharing
across the organization because of lack of vol-
untary communication among disparate social
factions (Granovetter, 1973; Haas & Hansen, 2007;
Hansen, 1999).
Proposition 3a: Workplace friendship(s)
may lead to inhibited knowledge shar-
ing across the organization because of
the formation of identity-based cliques
that have fewer voluntary interactions
with one another.
Cliques may negatively affect knowledge
transfer in organizations, and this effect will
be stronger the more others are aware of and feel
excluded from the friendship clique. A key factor
that may affect the salience of a given workplace
friendship clique is the social status of the cliques
members. Social status refers to the extent to which
an individual or group is respected or admired
by others (Magee & Galinsky, 2008; Ridgeway &
Walker, 1995).
Given that higher-status individuals are deemed
to have valuable and important characteristics
and resources (Hogg, 2001; Magee & Galinsky,
2008), their cliques are likely to be more salient
to colleagues outside those cliques. Conversely,
if the members of a friendship group have lower
social status (or are not particularly respected
or admired), others are less likely to pay atten-
tion to and care about whether the clique exists.
High-status members will make a friendship
groups existence and exclusivity more sa-
lient to outsiders and, therefore, more likely to
spark disidentification and clique formation
more broadly; this process, in turn, will trigger
fewer voluntary interactions and less knowl-
edge sharing.
Proposition 3b: The social status of mem-
bers of a focal friendship moderates the
relationship between workplace friend-
ship and inhibited knowledge sharing
across the organization such that friend-
ships comprising higher-status mem-
bers are more likely to cause inhibited
knowledge sharing than those com-
prising lower-status members.
Social identity theory also suggests that in-
dividuals will not only disclose less and per-
ceive less similarity with outgroups members
but will also feel less positively toward these
individuals (Brewer, 1991; Tajfel, 1982; Tajfel &
Turner, 2001). Simply being part of an outgroup
can trigger suspicion and a questioning of mo-
tives and behaviors (Brewer & Kramer, 1985;
Fein, 1996). When employees are friends, the
communal norms that govern their relationship(s)
may contrast starkly with the exchange norms
of other organizational relationships. Outsiders
who share involuntary (e.g., task-based) ties
with these individuals may therefore view these
voluntary relationships as unprofessional and
potential causes of unfair advantages. These re-
lationships can thus compromise perceptions of
fairness regarding both organizational proce-
dures and outcomes (Cohen-Charash & Spector,
2001), which are critical for productive profes-
sional relationships, organizational function-
ing, and performance (Rupp & Cropanzano, 2002;
Taylor, Tracy, Renard, Harrison, & Carroll, 1995).
Observers of a close workplace friendship may
not believe that the involved parties will act
objectivelyin both minor task-related activi-
ties, such as providing assistance, and major
ones, such as determining promotions. Out-
siders may therefore suspect ingroup favoritism
(Galinsky & Moskowitz, 2000) toward the work-
place friend.
12 OctoberAcademy of Management Review
The damage caused by these beliefs will
likely increase to the extent that others per-
ceive workplace friendships as threatening the
formal merit-based procedures inherent in or-
ganizational life and bureaucratic objectivity
(Ingram & Zou, 2008; Weber, 1947, 1968). Thus, if
a friendship exists between individuals of equal
formal status, this friendship will be less likely
to raise suspicion among colleagues who are
not in the friendship. However, when friendship
dyads or cliques have greater interrank mem-
bership or include employees from different
status levels of the formal organization(Tichy,
1973: 197), others are more likely to view these
bonds as undermining the organizationsmerito-
cratic standards.
Social status differences, such as those based
on gender and ethnicity, have been shown to de-
crease the relational mechanisms of friendship
such that individuals are less likely to engage in
self-disclosure and to feel similar when funda-
mental status differences exist (McPherson &
Smith-Lovin, 1987; Phillips et al., 2009). Therefore,
when formal status distance exists within a
friendship, those outside the friendship can be
more likely to notice it as an anomaly (Fein, 1996;
Kramer, 1999). This initial suspicion leads to closer
scrutiny of the relationship and a questioning of
whether the processes driving organizational out-
comes are fair (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001),
even when no observable behaviors explicitly call
the trustworthiness into question (Brockner &
Siegel, 1996; Fein, 1996). Individuals expect orga-
nizational rules and procedures to be consistent
across people and not subject to interpersonal
biases (Leventhal, 1980); any information that
calls this into question can lead to perceived
violation of procedural justice. For example, if
a high-ranking individual frequently has lunch
or goes out for drinks after work with a sub-
ordinate, other subordinates may notice and sus-
pect that preferential treatment is being given to
that subordinate, both in the present and poten-
tially the future, which may lead them to question
meritocratic processes across the organization.
Thus, when colleagues outside of a friendship
perceive those inside as having wide status dis-
tance, this view can undermine collective per-
ceptions of procedural and distributive justice
across the organization more broadly and, conse-
quently, effective functioning and performance
(Folger & Konovsky, 1989; Tyler, 1989; van den Bos &
Lind, 2001).
Proposition 3c: Formal status distance
between friends moderates the rela-
tionship between the presence of a
workplace friendship and collective
perceptions of procedural and distribu-
tive justice such that other colleagues
perceive lower levels of procedural and
distributive justice when formal status
distance is greater.
The FriendingPhenomenon: How Connecting
on Social Media Influences the Dark Sides of
Workplace Friendship
Social media now provide a central means
by which colleagues connect with one another
(Leonardi & Vaast, 2017; McFarland & Ployhart,
2015). Thus, communicating via social media
is likely to influence the key tensions and re-
lational processes of workplace friendships.
Indeed, social media, or digital platforms that
facilitate information sharing, user-created con-
tent, and collaboration (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook,
Instagram, Twitter), have revolutionized the
way we connect and communicate within just
the last decade (Barley, Meyerson, & Grodal,
2011; McFarland & Ployhart, 2015; Perlow, 2012;
Schinoff, 2017; Wajcman & Rose, 2011) and are
increasingly altering the boundary between the
professional and personal spheres (Forest &
Wood, 2012; Ollier-Malaterre et al., 2013; Rothbard
& Ollier-Malaterre, 2016). Yet theory and research
in the domain of organizations have only re-
cently begun to examine how communicating via
social media influences intraorganizational re-
lationships (Leonardi & Vaast, 2017; McFarland &
Ployhart, 2015), and even less scholarship focuses
on how this technology may impact informal
bonds such as friendship (cf. Ollier-Malaterre
et al., 2013; Schinoff, 2017). Therefore, we seek to
advance theory by discussing how connecting
with colleagues via social media can (a) alter the
friendship formation process and (b) heighten the
tensions associated with workplace friendship,
both of which have implications for the individual,
group, and organizational downsides of workplace
friendship outlined above. Figure 2 incorporates
the proposed effects of social media into the model
depicted in Figure 1.
Social media and friendship formation. Self-
disclosure allows individuals to discover and per-
ceive similarities, and these, in turn, drive friendship
2018 13Pillemer and Rothbard
Full Model: Social Media and the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship
Organizational context
Involuntary Exchange
Informal Socio-
Voluntary Communal
Formal Instrumental
Proposition 2a-b
Proposition 1a-d
Proposition 3a-c
amplifies tensions
Connecting on
social media
Proposition 4a-b
Member status
*Reduced deliberation and
preparation on complex decisions
*Distraction from instrumental goals
*Inhibited knowledge sharing
*Reduced perceptions of procedural
*Interrole conflict between informal
and formal roles
formation. On the one hand, connecting on social
media is likely to increase personal self-disclosures
to colleagues (Ollier-Malaterre et al., 2013), thus
potentially expediting the process of discovering
greater similarity and forming friendships. On the
other hand, an increase in self-disclosures could
also lead to the discovery of dissimilarities, which
is likely to inhibit and even drive away poten-
tial work friendships (Dumas et al., 2013; Phillips
et al., 2009). In typical face-to-face interactions,
individuals tailor their disclosures to fit their in-
teraction partner and the context in which their
conversation is enacted (Collins, 2004; Goffman,
1959). Individuals can tailor specific aspects of
their identity that they think will be congruent with
the conversation partners experience, as well as
carefully gauge reactions to those disclosures.
Thus, whether someone perceives a person as
similar depends not only on their actual similarity
to the person but also on the extent to which they
tailor their disclosures to the person and thesocial
Conversely, communication via social media
discourages tailoring ones self-presentations to
a particular individual and context (McFarland &
Ployhart, 2015; Ollier-Malaterre & Rothbard, 2015;
Ollier-Malaterre et al., 2013). Rather, a common
feature of these media is the unfiltered broad-
castingof disclosures to a wide audience (Ollier-
Malaterre et al., 2013; Shi, Rui, & Whinston, 2013).
Individuals become friendswith a click of a
button and are immediately exposed to a flood of
untailored self-disclosure(Ollier-Malaterre et al.,
2013: 648), including family photos, personal in-
terests, and political and religious affiliations
that previously would have been slowly revealed
selectively, such as through ones office decor
(Byron & Laurence, 2015), over months or years in
conversations with colleagues, or in many cases
not at all.
Therefore, connecting on social media sites in-
creases personal, non-work-related self-disclosure
to colleagues while it also reduces the extent to
which these disclosures are tailored to a particu-
lar individual or the norms of the workplace con-
text. Individuals lose much of their ability to tailor
disclosures and gauge reactions of specific peo-
ple. Sharing untailored personal disclosures is
likely to expedite the friendship formation pro-
cess (in which self-disclosures lead to perceived
similarity and vice versa, which, in turn, leads to
the relational state of friendship) if individuals
have high degree of actual similarity (e.g.,
attitudes, interests, values; Harrison et al., 1998;
Liao et al., 2008). However, greater access to
untailored disclosures also increases the risk that
workplace friends or potential friends will ob-
serve qualities about others that are not con-
gruent with their own self-perceptions and the
norms of the organizational context, inadver-
tently resulting in greater perceived dissimi-
larity and interpersonal distance (Dumas et al.,
2013; Phillips et al., 2009; see Figure 2).
Thus, connecting via social media can have
a polarizing effect on workplace friendship, either
facilitating friendship formation if actual simi-
larity is higher or leading to more rapid discovery
of dissimilarity and distancing between col-
leagues if actual similarity is lower.
Proposition 4a: Connecting via social me-
dia increases personal self-disclosures
and reduces the individualized tailor-
ing of these disclosures to colleagues,
which expedites the friendship forma-
tion process if individuals are higher
in actual similarity and derails the
friendship formation process if individ-
uals are lower in actual similarity.
Social media and tensions between friendship
and the organizational context. Connecting with
colleagues via social media also increases the
four tensions noted above (informality versus
formality, socioemotional goals versus instru-
mental goals, communal norms versus exchange
norms, and voluntariness versus involuntary
constraints), which can then amplify dark sides at
the individual, group, and organizational levels.
First, the informality that characterizes self-
disclosure on social media platforms, both in
terms of communication style and content (Kiefer,
2016; Leonardi & Vaast, 2017), can be at odds
with the formality of organizational roles. Com-
munication via social media tends to be more
conversationaland casual; a tweet or a post
on someones Facebook wall implies less formal
expectations than does traditional professional
communication (Boyd, 2010; Ellison & Boyd, 2013;
Kiefer, 2016). Moreover, since many social media
platforms originated in the personal domain, they
encourage self-disclosures not related to work
(Leonardi & Vaast, 2017; Ollier-Malaterre et al.,
2013). The informal style and personal content of
communication via social media can also lead to
conflicts in balancing the personal-professional
boundary (Kiefer, 2016; Ollier-Malat erre et al., 2013).
2018 15Pillemer and Rothbard
For example, the increased informality could amplify
risks of interrole conflict if individuals discovered
more similarities and felt closer to colleagues with
whom they also compete.
Second, many social media sites focus on fos-
tering personal relationships, suggesting that
self-disclosures should be geared primarily to-
ward socioemotional goals, such as sharing
photos of ones family, an emotional disclosure
about issues at home, or pictures from a New
Years Eve party. These types of disclosures may
bring people closer but may be distracting or
heighten the relationship focus between work-
place friends, which can undermine instrumen-
tal goals of individuals and teams (Dumas et al.,
2013; Loyd et al., 2013). For example, knowledge
via social media of a teammates difficult family
issues may make it even more challenging to dis-
agree with the individual in a group decision-
making scenario, thereby reducing the extent to
which colleagues deliberate on a complex issue.
Third, as discussed above, workplace friend-
ship(s) can also lead to downsides for the orga-
nization when other colleagues are aware of
these friendships and see them as identity-based
cliques. This is more likely to occur when the
involuntary constraints of organizational life
contrast with the voluntary nature of friendships.
What is new about colleagues connecting via
social media is that it increases transparency re-
garding who is connected to whom and the nature
of these connections (Leonardi & Vaast, 2017). The
ability to view social interactions and associa-
tions between other social groups to which one
is an outsider can further amplify the tensions
between voluntary and involuntary ties. For in-
stance, sites such as Facebook and Instagram
allow people to post pictures of social events and
to check into locations (and tag the friends
accompanying them), making these connections
more visible and salient to other, excluded col-
leagues (Krasnova, Wenninger, Widjaja, Buxmann,
2013) and potentially amplifying clique formation
and reduced knowledge transfer.
Last, if friendships occur between individuals
with more formal status distance, the visibility of
othersinteractions on social media (Leonardi &
Vaast, 2017) may further heighten the tensions
between communal and exchange-based norms in
that outsiders can more clearly see the friendship
relationships, which might increase their suspi-
cions that supervisors may be using need- rather
than exchange-based norms. This perception, in
turn, might signal favoritism and lack of pro-
cedural justice (Kramer, 1999; Tyler & Blader,
2003). For instance, if an employee sees their boss
disclose something personal on a colleagues
Facebook wall, or even comment on or likea
colleagues disclosure, this personal attention
might be perceived as favoritism.
Thus, when colleagues connect via social me-
dia, it may amplify the four tensions between
friendship and the organizational context, which
heightens the risk of downsides resulting from
these tensions at the individual, group, and or-
ganizational levels.
Proposition 4b: Connecting via social
media increases the tensions between
the core features of friendship and the
organizational context, which, in turn,
amplifies the potential for downsides at
the individual, group, and organiza-
tional levels.
Although the benefits of close, informal ties at
work are well documented and taken for granted,
a small, disparate body of scholarship sug-
gests that workplace friendships have important
downsides that need to be better understood
(e.g., Ingram & Zou, 2008; Methot et al., 2015). Our
theoretical framework demonstrates how core
features of friendship are at odds with central
features of organizational life and cause tensions
that create the potential for downsides. We also
examine the role of new ways of working and, in
particular, how the use of social media affects
workplace friendship.
Theoretical Contributions
Scholars have acknowledged that workplace
friendships are as complicated as they are critical
to individuals and organizations (Ingram & Zou,
2008). Yet the drivers of this complexity and the
resulting challenges and downsides associated
with workplace friendship are both poorly un-
derstood and likely to be rapidly shifting because
of changes in work and communication technol-
ogy. We have identified the sources of tension
in workplace friendships that can lead to down-
sides at multiple levels within an organization.
Thus, we extend and synthesize the literature
on positive relationships at work, as well as
16 OctoberAcademy of Management Review
high-quality connections (Dutton & Heaphy,
2003; Dutton & Ragins, 2007), close relationships
(Clark & Reis, 1988; Ferris et al., 2009), and mul-
tiplex ties (Ingram & Zou, 2008; Methot et al.,
2015), to articulate how and when these seem-
ingly universally positive relationships may
lead to tensions in and costs to organizations.
While research on informal, personal relation-
ships in organizations often notes the potential
for challenges (e.g., Dutton & Heaphy, 2003), few
studies have focused on the precise origin and
nature of these downsides. We have specified
how, why, when, and for whom there may be
costs to organizational functioning associated
with workplace friendships by specifying the
tensions, relational mechanisms, and modera-
tors of these relationships for individual, group,
and organizational outcomes. In doing so we
have provided a theoretical framework for future
empirical work on workplace friendship to build
on in understanding potential downsides as
well as benefits.
In addition, our work broadens the evaluation
of the positivityof relationships beyond linear
effects that accrue only to members of a focal
friendship. Specifically, we consider how varying
levels of workplace friendscloseness, maturity,
and status amplify or attenuate the risks associ-
ated with these relationships, offering predictive
power for how the nature of a specific friendship
tie (as opposed to the number of ties or network
structure) can amplify or ameliorate downsides.
Our theoretical model contributes to broader con-
versations about nonmonotonic effects of positive
psychological phenomena, suggesting instances
in which friendships may have curvilinear re-
lationships with key outcomes (Grant & Schwartz,
2011). Moreover, by considering downsides for
outsidersto the friendships, we extend theory
about how positive relationships can paradoxi-
cally lead to negative consequences for others
(Blau, 1964; Brewer, 1997; Tichy, 1973). A focus on
how the nature of a friendship influences nega-
tive outcomes and on how particular workplace
friendships may affect various factions within
organizations is a step toward reconciling con-
flicting findings regarding positive versus nega-
tive outcomes of these bonds (Ingram & Zou, 2008;
Methot et al., 2015). We hope that this frame-
work helps to spur additional research and cul-
tivate deeper understanding of the complex,
multifaceted nature of friendships in organiza-
tional settings.
Last, scholars have just begun to examine
the ways technology is fundamentally changing
organizational relationships (Leonardi & Vaast,
2017; McFarland & Ployhart, 2015; Ollier-Malaterre
et al., 2013). Researchers have tended to focus on
the benefits of social media in organizations,
such as sustaining, transferring, and growing
knowledge repositories (Treem & Leonardi, 2013),
as well as increasing metaknowledge,or the
awareness of who knows what in organizations
(Leonardi, 2014, 2015). Yet when colleagues con-
nect via social media, especially via sites that
encourage informal and personal disclosures
(e.g., Facebook, Instagram), this can raise new
challenges for employees seeking to maintain
boundaries between their personal and pro-
fessional lives and relationships. We advance
nascent theory on the changing nature of work
relationships by highlighting how connecting
via social media may alter the processes by which
workplace friendships are formed, as well as
amplify existing tensions between the personal
role of friends and the professional norms and
expectations of organizations. Given the rapid
pace at which technology is shifting, and given
the relative lack of empirical work on how the use
of social media impacts informal workplace re-
lationships (Leonardi & Vaast 2017; McFarland &
Ployhart, 2015), our theorizing provides a useful
jumping off point for future work in this increas-
ingly important yet poorly understood domain of
organizational life.
Moreover, the heightened informality, focus
on nonwork identities, untailored self-disclosure,
and visibility of otherssocial interactions char-
acterizing many social media sites amplify the
challenges of workplace friendship. While scholars
often discuss the blurring of boundaries between
work and nonwork identities (Dumas & Sanchez-
Burks, 2015; Ollier-Malaterre et al., 2013), we high-
light the importance of transparency of boundaries
resulting from social media, in which the bound-
aries between work and nonwork identities and
relationships remain intact but these identities
and relationships themselves are more visible to
outsiders. By highlighting the challenges that
arise when colleagues engage in personal self-
disclosure both offline and online in an effort to
build and maintain friendships, this work con-
tributes to research on boundary management
(Ashforth et al., 2000; Kreiner, 2006; Nippert-Eng,
2008; Ramarajan & Reid, 2013; Rothbard, Phillips,
& Dumas, 2005) and on identity work between
2018 17Pillemer and Rothbard
personal and professional roles (Kreiner et al.,
2009; LeBaron, Glenn, & Thompson, 2009).
Future Directions and Extensions
Future research should examine additional in-
dividual, relational, and contextual factors that
impact the tensions, processes, and outcomes of
friendship at work. Although numerous individual
differences (e.g., prosocial motivation), situational
factors (e.g., proximity), and organizational-level
factors (e.g., the extent to which an organizations
culture is relational) will likely influence the prev-
alence and effects of friendship at work, we high-
light two particularly promising avenues for future
research below.
First, individuals and organizations may dif-
fer in their relational nature and, thus, in the ex-
tent to which employees will experience tensions.
For example, demographic and cultural differ-
ences may influence both individual preferences
and organizational norms regarding workplace
friendships. Indeed, compared to white men,
women and individuals of Latin American and
Asian backgrounds tend to be more communal
in their relational style and, thus, may be better
equipped to navigate the tensions of workplace
friendship (Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Hom & Xiao,
2011; Ingram & Zou, 2008; Sanchez-Burks, 2002;
Sanchez-Burks, Nisbett, & Ybarra, 2000). Organi-
zational culture may also differ in the extent to
which close relationships are normative (Barsade
&ONeill, 2014; ONeill & Rothbard, 2017). Future
work should examine how gender, ethnicity,
and organizational culture can moderate these
Second, future research might explore the evo-
lution of workplace friendships over time and the
consequences of these shifts. This might include
friendships that dissolve or devolve into negative
workplace relationships (Sias et al., 2004) or that
escalate into workplace romances (Pierce, Byrne,
& Aguinis, 1996; Quinn, 1977). For example, in
the case of damaged friendships, the intimate
self-disclosures and the conferring of similarities
that facilitate closeness can put employees at
risk of trust violations and social undermining
behaviors by former friends (Duffy et al., 2002;
Elangovan & Shapiro, 1998; Granovetter, 1985;
McAllister, 1995; Robinson & Bennett, 1995) The
relational processes that drive friendship forma-
tion may also lead to nonplatonic relationships at
work (Pierce et al., 1996). A specific type of close
friendship that has been explored in the popular
press but that has received scant scholarly at-
tention is the work spouse”—a friendship that
resembles domestic partnerships in terms of the
high levels of socioemotional involvement and
self-disclosure, but can also lead to crossing the
lineinto romantic relationships (Office Pulse,
2017; Spector, 2017). Future research should ex-
amine the processes and consequences of work-
place friendshipsevolution over time.
Practical Implications
Given the increasingly social nature of work
(Grant & Parker, 2009; Oldham & Hackman, 2010)
and the rise of social media as a core means
of connecting with colleagues (McFarland &
Ployhart, 2015; Ollier-Malaterre et al., 2013),
workplace friendships will likely continue to be-
come both more prevalent and complex. High-
profile organizations such as Google and Zappos
are increasingly promoting cultures rooted in fun
and camaraderie, taking for granted the belief that
promoting friendships among their employees
has uniformly positive effects on organizational
outcomes (Dumas & Sanchez-Burks, 2015; Grant &
Schwartz, 2011; Rath, 2006; Riordan, 2013). Yet
forging successful friendships at work requires
effectively managing the tensions inherent in
workplace friendships. Informal strategies and
formal policies need to be continuously enacted at
the individual, group, and organizational levels to
ameliorate the risks associated with workplace
Colleagues in the early stages of friendship
should develop tactics to manage the inherent
tensions underlying workplace friendships. For
example, individuals might encourage the de-
velopment of shared understandings among
friends regarding when it is acceptable to discuss
nonwork topics to decrease the risk of intrusion,
and when it is acceptable to openly discuss
areas of conflict, such as promotion opportunities,
to address potential interrole conflict directly.
Teams might purposefully seek to integrate
outsidersviews at key points to help make im-
portant decisions and introduce diverse per-
spectives (Loyd et al.,2013), or place mature friends
on teams who feel more comfortable openly
disagreeing. Organizational leaders should im-
plement programs (such as cross-functional
or organization-wide coffee chats or presenta-
tions) that encourage informal dialogue among
18 OctoberAcademy of Management Review
individuals from disparate social groups to en-
sure that the boundaries of friendship groups are
not perceived as impenetrable.
Social media may add additional complexity
to workplace friendships by increasing the trans-
parency between personal and professional iden-
tities. Given that social media platforms can vary in
terms of the types of connections that are encour-
aged and what content is disclosed, individuals
should also develop a more nuanced understanding
of the different types of social media and how to use
them to more skillfully share information that might
help to foster closeness without undermining pro-
fessionalism. Moreover, individuals should be
aware of the invisible audienceviewing their
interactions online and should understand that
seemingly harmless social interactions may cause
other colleagues to feel excluded, fueling the
formation of disparate cliques. Leaders should
exercise particular caution over informal and
preferential connections with subordinates to
avoid perceptions of favoritism by outsiders.
Friendships at work provide undeniable bene-
fits but also can bring troublesome downsides.
Research that explicitly targets the dark sides of
workplace friendships is critical to advance schol-
arship on the changing nature of workplace re-
lationships. As organizations become more social
and connected, employees and leaders must effec-
tively manage the tensions and challenges aris-
ing from friendships within organizations in order
to fully leverage the well-established benefits of
these personal bonds. Moreover, understanding
the source of these dark sides should help organi-
zations to design policies and interventions that
empower employees to optimize their relationships
as they navigate an increasingly connected and
boundaryless workforce.
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