5 Signs That Your Work Friendship Is Toxic

Listen to your gut: It's a red flag if a work friend starts to make you feel uncomfortable.
Having a close friend on the job comes with built-in tensions that can become unhealthy and toxic.
Nenad Stojnev via Getty Images
Having a close friend on the job comes with built-in tensions that can become unhealthy and toxic.

Having a close confidant at work can make a long day go quicker and be the boost you need to get through a tough project. But the friendships that you make at work have built-in tensions.

What makes these relationships unique is that you must manage the tricky balance of being a co-worker who has transactional demands alongside the informal, involuntary parts of being a friend, said Jessica Methot, a human resources management researcher at Rutgers University who has studied the the benefits and downsides of workplace friendships.

“You have to have a professional level of respect as well as a personal level of respect,” Methot said. “If one of those is compromised, the relationship can’t survive.”

Good friends can go above and beyond to give you unconditional support, but a co-worker’s friendship must have boundaries to stay professional. When a work friend starts blowing past those boundaries, that’s a warning sign.

Here are some of the red flags that suggest a work friendship is no longer healthy and may even be toxic to your career and well-being:

1. Your friend expects you to take their side at work all the time.

“Friendship requires a level of favoritism,” Methot said. “It can hurt the friendship if it looks like you are not benefiting that person.”

But in the workplace, you can’t show this sort of bias to one colleague. A good friend understands that you need to maintain these professional boundaries to do your job.

A toxic work friend, however, may expect you to side with them in project disputes or tell them any inside information you hear from meetings and be hurt if you don’t share.

Patricia Sias, a researcher at the University of Arizona who studies workplace friendships, found that conflicting expectations is one of the five top ways work friendships deteriorate. In one of her research papers on the topic, she detailed an example from her interviews: When a manager reprimanded his friend for overlooking an aircraft safety action on his checklist, the friend took the feedback personally. “He said, ‘Well ... you’re supposed to be my best friend.’ And I said, ‘This has nothing to do with friendship,’” the supervisor recalled.

Unsurprisingly, Sias’ paper revealed that the work friendship ultimately imploded after the stress and anger in this exchange. The wives of the work friends ended their own friendship, and the offended employee stopped letting the manager’s son hang out with his son.

2. Your ability to get your job done would be jeopardized if you ended the friendship.

If you are scared of getting on your work friend’s bad side because you have seen them eviscerate their work enemies, that’s a sign that the relationship has a toxic foundation.

The consequences of your work friend’s retaliation could be as petty as getting left off emails to as big as getting the cold shoulder from the whole office after they turn your co-workers against you.

“If you know someone well enough, you know what they are capable of. If you are terrified of what they are capable of, you’ve come across someone who is pretty toxic,” said Tanisha Ranger, a Nevada-based clinical psychologist.

Maintaining a friendship out of fear is not healthy for your well-being or your continued longevity at the company.

“If you think, ‘This person is toxic, however, this person is tied into everything’ ... if you feel there is no lever [you] could pull that won’t lead back to them in some way, now you have a systemic problem, and it’s time to think about where you want to work next,” Ranger said.

3. Your work friend betrays your trust.

Good friendships are buit on mutual trust, and toxic friendships are built on feeling like you always have to watch your back around the other person.

Feeling betrayed is another of the top five reasons work friendships fail, according to Sias’ research. In one of her examples, a woman found her supposed friend going through her office files without her permission, and it ended the trust between them.

A betrayal doesn’t have to be as big as backstabbing or trespassing. It can also be an accrual of seemingly minor slights and dismissals that make you wonder if your friend is actually trustworthy. They might disclose your private information to others, or they may use information you shared in confidence to their own professional advantage, Methot said.

“They might hide information that’s useful for your job and for your development,” Methot added, noting, “They don’t want you to succeed as much, even if they care about you as a person. All of this really calls into question the foundation of trust in the relationship.”

4. You become rude or gossipy when you are with this friend – and you’re gaining a bad reputation by associating with them.

The company you keep at work says a lot about your values, whether you intend it to or not. Bad vibes are contagious: Research has found that being around rude work bullies makes us more likely to be uncivil and mean, too.

You don’t want to stay friends with someone who is making you into someone you did not used to be, because it can ultimately start to damage your reputation, too. Jennifer Tardy, a diversity and inclusion consultant, sees this dynamic as guilt by association.

“If your workplace reputation is starting to be perceived similarly to your friend’s negative reputation simply because the two of you are ‘seen together’ often, that could be a problem,” she said.

Ranger said toxic work dynamics can push you to say and do things you would not do on your own. If “you find yourself being really cruel and gossipy in ways that you aren’t outside of this work relationship,” that’s a sign the relationship is not healthy, she said.

5. Hanging out fills you with more ambivalence and dread than excitement.

Unless the betrayal is spectacular, it can be really hard to know when to cut off a friend. In unhealthy work friendship dynamics, Methot said, there can be mixed feelings that make it harder for people to know whether or not they should end the friendship.

“It’s not this turning point where all of a sudden we absolutely hate this person. It’s a sense of ambivalence,” she said. “If there is a piece of us that still cares about them or can’t really figure out how to reconcile this ambivalence, it takes up more of our mental energy.”

In these cases, Methot suggests paying attention to whether you feel excited to talk and learn from this person or whether your interactions tire you out. That will help you figure out whether the relationship is still beneficial. Talking to an outside party, such as a friend you don’t work with, could help, too.

In the end, it’s important to listen to your gut. Does the thought of going to happy hour and getting lunch with this person make you nervous or anxious? Do you call them your friend but dread the meetings or Slack conversations you are in together? Those are signs to pay attention to.

“If you are feeling uncomfortable, even if you can’t name why, it’s important to respect that,” Ranger said. “If you feel uneasy around them, that’s a really good sign that something is off.”

If your toxic work friendships are keeping you up at night, here’s a small bit of comfort: A lot of times work friendships end when the job does. It’s OK to cut these relationships off.

As popular therapist Esther Perel previously told HuffPost, “What’s very interesting is how many people have friends at work and when they change the work, the friends don’t go with them. “It’s a really powerful thing to see how much of these relationships are actually circumstantial. One or two people may continue with you in life, and the others you probably will not see again.”

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