work is ruining one of my closest friendships — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I started at my company five years ago, around the same time as another new hire, Jill. We were on different teams and our responsibilities didn’t overlap at all, but as two newbies around the same age and with similar interests, we quickly formed a bond. Over the years our friendship has extended well beyond the workplace. We spend a lot of time together outside of work, our spouses have become friends with each other, we have traveled together, and I consider Jill one of my closest friends.

Within the last year, our company went through a re-org and we are now frequently assigned projects together. The problem is that we have very different expectations when it comes to work-life balance.

I have put a lot of effort into establishing and maintaining firm boundaries around my availability. I rarely work late, I treat my time off as sacred, and I do not check email during PTO. I am very comfortable pushing back on unreasonable deadlines and in the case of urgent due dates with no flexibility, I will work with partners to see what other projects can be shifted to accommodate rather than simply saying yes and working long hours to get everything done. In return, I am a reliable employee, I take my responsibilities very seriously, I have a great relationship with my boss, and I always get high marks and positive feedback in my annual reviews.

Jill, however, does not have these boundaries. She regularly works late and on weekends. She is very good at her job and often goes above and beyond the duties of her role, but because she never says no, more and more work is put on her, and she feels a lot of work-related stress. We work in a creative industry where there are definitely hard deadlines, but partners also ask for a lot of “nice to haves” and will happily take as much as you’re willing to give. I have tried to encourage her to set more boundaries, but it’s not something she is willing to do.

Now that we are working on projects together, our different approaches are causing tension in our friendship. Jill feels resentful at what she perceives as me not carrying my weight. I feel resentful that her impulse to do more than what we’ve been tasked with often leads to doing work that isn’t necessary and sometimes doesn’t even get used. As a result, we have both pulled back from the friendship and haven’t spent time together outside of work in months. At work we are friendly, but it’s definitely not the same as it once was.

Our team is small. I’m the only person with my particular role and, as I mentioned before, Jill gets assigned to a lot because she always says yes, so it’s not likely I can avoid working on projects with her. I value our friendship, but quitting my job or changing companies isn’t realistic for me. I want to talk to her about this directly, but I don’t know what to say and am worried about how it will be received.

This is the crappy reality of friends and work: sometimes working together ruins the friendship.

In your case, you’ve been working together all along but you weren’t really working together in the way you are now. You had a common frame of reference — being employed by the same company — but being on different teams and different projects for the first few years meant this switch is more like if a friend from outside your company suddenly joined your team and you discovered you really didn’t mesh well professionally. Sometimes that can kill a friendship, or at least change it significantly.

However, if the friendship has been a strong one, ideally there should be room to talk about what’s going on. How to do it depends on the dynamic the two of you have together, but the basic formula I’d use is: (1) name the problem, (2) name your feelings about the problem, and (3) ask about a way forward.

So it might be something like this: “I think working together more closely has been hard on our friendship! I’ve thought a lot about why, and I think we have two different approaches to work. I put a lot of effort into maintaining firm boundaries on my hours, and I’m willing to push back on deadlines and priorities to ensure that happens. I know your approach is a different one — you’re more willing to put in extra hours, and you’ll try to find a way to say yes to things if at all possible. I know that works well for you, and I’m not trying to change you. But I don’t think either of us realized how hard it would be on our friendship that we set our work boundaries so differently. I can see it’s affected things between us, and I feel sad about it. I really miss you! I wanted to ask how you’re feeling about it, and hopefully talk about whether there’s anything we can do about it.”

Sometimes just naming what’s going on can inject some relief into a situation like this, and can clear some space to figure out a better approach for both of you. But you’ve also got to go into the conversation knowing that there might not be a great solution — sometimes working together really does change things in a way that’s hard to undo, at least as long as you’re still working together. Jill might be too aggravated/resentful to see the friendship the way she used to, or the frustrations might be too ongoing (for either or both of you) to allow for the relationship you used to have.

But if she’s open to trying to work on it, you might suggest trying a work-talk-free get-together — go out for drinks or have her over for dinner with a clear agreement that neither of you will talk about work. Doing that might help get you both back into a headspace more like the old one you used to have with each other. And if it doesn’t work, that’ll be useful info too — at that point you might be better off accepting you’ll need to give each other space as long as you continue to work closely together, but could try again once that changes. (I would love to tell you that things can definitely go back to normal once you’re not working together. Sometimes they can! But sometimes things are permanently changed. This sucks and I’m sorry.)

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