How to Navigate 8 Potential Pitfalls of Socializing at Work

Being part of a friendly work environment doesn’t just make the hours you spend at the office more pleasant -- having close pals in the workplace can boost your job satisfaction and make you more productive, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. But navigating the social scene at work isn’t always easy: There are a number of assumed dos and don’ts when it comes to developing an office friendship and generally interacting with your co-workers. While you want to engage with your colleagues, you don’t want to overstep the boundaries. With this in mind, here are eight social scenarios you’ll likely to face in the workplace -- and expert advice on how to handle each one as professionally as possible.

1. Adding a Co-Worker on Social Media

While a LinkedIn request is totally benign, requesting a Facebook friendship or following a colleague on Instagram can be a little more fraught because these platforms blur the lines between your professional and personal lives. For this reason, career coach Laura Simms says the time to take this is step is only after you develop a close personal relationship with a co-worker outside of the office -- as in, you’ve hung out in each other’s homes, met significant others and don’t consider each other “work friends” but “friend friends.” “Otherwise, it’s just too easy for your college buddy to post an embarrassing photo, for your politics to offend or for your frequent cat memes to irritate,” she says. “The possible risks outweigh the possible rewards.”

2. Grabbing a Beer From the Office Kegerator

These days, a number of companies now support at-work imbibing by offering alcohol in the kitchen or having a rolling bar cart that makes its way from cubicle to cubicle. And while the liquor, wine and beer may be flowing -- and free -- it’s not always easy to know when (or if) you should partake. Instead of grabbing a drink solo, career coach Chris Delaney, author of “The 73 Rules for Influencing the Interview,” suggests using an open bar as a means of celebration. “Offer a co-worker a drink to commemorate his or her birthday, for instance,” he says. “Use this time to create rapport, build friendships and increase your likability.” This way, you won’t be seen as the office lush but as someone who makes others feel special.

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3. Letting Loose at Company Events

Work parties, especially those that are outside the office, are typically a time when your colleagues (and higher-ups!) will let their guards down. You want to be a team player, but you don’t want to embarrass yourself. So if your boss is buying a round of shots, do you partake? “One drink means you’re social, fun and part of the team. More than one drink means you’re more likely to say or do something stupid and become fodder for the rumor mill,” Simms says. “If you want a fun night where you can really let loose, go do that with people who don’t sign your paychecks.” Delaney agrees, noting that the old “work hard, play hard” mentality is outdated. “Employees these days have to watch their step at work events as reputation is key to career advancement, and a lack of professionalism will affect your standing.” He suggests always staying more sober than your drunken colleagues: If everyone is having multiple drinks, make sure you’re having fewer than they are.

4. Turning an Office Friendship Into an After-Work Friendship

Perhaps you’ve been getting along really well with a colleague and you want to start hanging out after work hours. While it can feel a bit awkward to essentially ask out a co-worker on a friend level, by building a strong camaraderie during the day, doing so will eventually come naturally, Delaney says. “As you work closely together, your friendship will grow and you’ll find common interests, create inside jokes and build on that initial rapport,” he says. “As you find yourself talking about a shared interest, take the opportunity to invite your colleague to join you on the activity outside of work.” Whether it’s going on a hike, checking out an art gallery or just hitting happy hour, it’s OK to test the waters.

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5. Taking a Relationship With a Co-Worker to the Next Level

In some cases, an office friendship can develop into a romance, which always presents some tricky challenges. The overall advice that’s crucial to follow, therapist Juan Santos says, is to stick to the professional script during work hours -- for your reputation’s sake. You don’t want to become the star of the office gossip mill or have your integrity questioned, especially if you start dating someone higher on the totem pole than you. (After you leave the office, of course, you can flirt to your heart’s content.) If you decide to make things official, be sure to communicate this to HR and your supervisor, he says. “Although maintaining your privacy may seem like a good option, it is not the best.” Those in charge shouldn’t hear about your relationship through the grapevine -- they should hear it from you.

6. Befriending the Intern

In life, you’ll hit it off with the most unexpected people. But even if you both totally get each other, you probably shouldn’t become besties with your intern. This friendship could call into question your professionalism and leadership skills as well as keep you from being taken seriously by those working under you -- and those above, for that matter. Instead, use the affinity you have for each other to form a mentoring relationship. “Mentoring helps a new employee grow rapidly, and naturally a friendship can grow from this experience,” Delaney says. “Mentoring creates, from the employee’s point of view, a professional image of you. Being respected and seen as professional helps when you need to exercise your authority.”

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7. Taking Personal Calls at Work

With how much time we spend in the office these days -- and how easy tech makes it stay in constant communication -- your work life and your real life may overlap in the form of personal calls at work, sending texts to friends and so on. Career coach Julie Austin, author of “The Money Garden: How to Plant the Seeds for a Lifetime of Income,” says that taking or making emergency calls, such as to the doctor or babysitter, should be no big deal, but constantly chatting away at your desk could raise some eyebrows. Especially if you’re sparring with the cable company in earshot of your colleagues or going on and on about last weekend’s escapades while others around you are trying to concentrate. “As an employer, I’m fine with a little chitchat as long as the person’s work is done and it doesn’t bother other people,” Austin says. So if you need to call your college roommate for her birthday or dispute a bill, definitely take it outside.

8. Talk-Typing With Co-Workers on Gchat

One of the easiest and most inconspicuous ways to communicate with your colleagues is by instant messaging. You look like you’re taking notes or working, but you’re really dishing about the meeting that’s in progress or deciding where to go for lunch. While it’s awesome to have a close relationship with your co-workers, there’s one major way in which you don’t want your messaging to get out of control: by using it as an arena for gossiping and airing complaints. It’s easy to get carried away with words when you’re typing, and this can hurt you in the end. “Studies show that people often report complaints of office gossipers as lacking professionalism,” says licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert Denise Limongello. Even if it seems like everyone is airing grievances, “steering clear of office gossip is a useful way gain respect and likability.”

What Do YOU Think?

Do you agree with the tips on how to navigate these pitfalls? What has been your experience with socializing at work? Share your story in the comments!

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