Women at Work Work and The World

How to Break up with a work colleague… then keep working with them

Breaking up is hard; breaking with a work colleague is tricky.  I am not talking about an intimate relationship (whole other post), but rather the colleague you have befriended when you first started, during a project or on a course.

You know him or her. Witty, seemingly knowledgeable about what is happening around the traps, very congenial and inclusive.  You start hanging out with them at lunch, and before you know it, you are spending every lunchtime together.  The fact of the matter is everyone needs a friend at work, in fact there are there is plenty of research to say that having a best friend at work is incredibly important to your own work fulfilment (if you want to read more about that look here or here).  You gossip together, have the occasional after work drink and you sit together during department meetings.  She is the person you turn to when you want to whinge about your boss, the workplace, your colleague with BO or the state of the lunchroom fridge.

You lean on your workplace friend when things are tough; they know many of your secrets, both work and personal. It is a regular friendship.  The problem is that not all friendships last and sometimes friendships that have been based around a single commonality (work) can be more fragile than other friendships based on shared history, values or experiences.  Promotions, personal problems, challenges with bosses or workload, money, transfers or jealousy can all affect our workplace relationships, some can sustain through change, and others suffer.  If the relationship has run its course and is now something you would rather avoid, it is probably time to start acting.

I would like to point out at this stage that running a hard-line avoidance campaign is unsustainable and highly problematic.  Unless of course, you happen to have been trained in Military style evasion techniques – then fill your boots.  I once burst into a high-level meeting in an attempt to avoid a colleague, highly embarrassing and an abject failure in avoidance practices! I would also suggest that un-friending on Facebook and thinking that you are done is probably not going to leave you with the functional working relationship that you may need into the future. So what can you do?

  1. Go slowly. If you have had lunch together every day for the last year and all the sudden you go AWOL, it may cause further harm.  Try inviting others to join you, or scheduling other activities, try lunchtime walking with a group for example.  This is not about being disingenuous, but it is about moving apart and leaving everyone’s dignity intact.  If you txt outside of work, ease back.  In work, if it suits your professional goals, volunteer for a specific project that will see you spending more time outside your department.
  2. Be careful. You have to keep working with your ex-bestie; unless you are prepared to leave your workplace, you need to consider how to continue your relationship in a functional (but maybe distant) manner.  It costs nothing to be polite, irrespective of your feelings towards each other.  Keep a channel of politeness open. A confrontation in the photocopier room probably is not going to facilitate brilliant ongoing relations.
  3. Shut up. Chances are you have shared secrets.  Keep them to yourself. If Nosy Nancy notices that you are not spending as much time with your bestie and asks why, simply reply that you have both been busy, leave it at that.
  4. Avoid dramatics. Crying in the toilets, overt efforts to reconcile, long private meetings with one another to try to sort things out, physical altercations, speaking about the situation to others, walking around like Debbie Downer will do you no favours professionally, leave drama to the stage.  If you are desperate to talk about it and be dramatic, find a non-work friend that you can confide in and go crazy.
  5. Avoid creating sides. We are tribal folks at the heart of it, and most of us hate the feeling of isolation.  If we feel wronged or if the bestie relationship soured, it is very usual to seek comfort in others.  Be wary of starting a gang war because you have broken up with a work colleague, it’s not only unhealthy for your team but it will inevitably draw attention from senior Managers.

Breaking up is hard to do.  Breaking up at work needs a careful approach.  Whatever you choose to do, always keep in mind that if you are able to maintain a functional, professional relationship, you will both come away better for it.

Photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash

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