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Work Friendships: A Double-Edged Sword
Work and friends don't always mix.
Having friends at work, where we spend the bulk of our time, is nice. But is it always possible?
In 2020, I was severely betrayed and hurt by coworkers at my previous job. Two years later, I'm still feeling traumatized over what transpired and finding it difficult to trust coworkers or make new friends at my current job.
I had been at my previous job for five years, where I was the administrative manager and one of the longest-serving employees. I put in long hours, including unpaid overtime and was completely dedicated.
It was a small family-owned franchise of ten people and we were always being told we were all part of the “'family.” We regularly socialized with the owner, his wife, their sons, and their families. I felt comfortable, enjoyed my job, and was always told how much I was appreciated.
My wealth of knowledge in this specific industry was highly regarded and considered invaluable. I received regular pay increases and at a franchise function, I won an award for loyalty.
Then came the plummet into hell.
I returned from leave early in 2020 to be told we would all be working from home because of the pandemic. This was fine; we adjusted to the circumstances until the big boss wanted everyone to start coming back to the office. He was an anti-vaxer who didn't believe COVID was an issue.
In my country, we weren’t allowed to have more than a couple of people in a small office space. I'd been home for three months because I had a serious heart issue (which they knew about previously). I was afraid of getting COVID. When I returned to the office, I was shocked to find most coworkers there, and I told the boss I wasn't comfortable.
This was where he turned from someone I saw as a kind father figure to someone I didn't know. He screamed at me, telling me I "should go home" and that I was "bringing everyone down" and needed to respect his authority. He went on and on. I was shocked and extremely hurt.
I told him he had no right to speak to me like that because I didn't do anything to deserve it! Six other people were in the office at the time and none of them came to my defense.
I told the boss' son (also an owner) what had happened. He told me to leave it to him. I worked the rest of the day expecting the boss to apologize, but he was still angry and had no explanation for why he blew up at me in front of everyone. It was humiliating and disappointing.
Fast forward three months later: While working from home, by pure accident, I found a drafted document stating I was going to be made redundant! I immediately contacted the boss' son (who told me he was embarrassed that I had seen the document). But, it was true. The big boss had been planning to replace me for six months with some random junior clerical worker and two virtual assistants!
He started the fight with me to justify my firing and save money. I resigned on the spot.
What was almost worse was the fact that none of my so-called “office friends”' asked me how I was, supported me, or contacted me after the firing. When I contacted my closest friend, she apologized and said she felt bad that she didn't stand up for me but didn't want to lose her job.
How can these people be such cowards? It’s so painful to think they were never really my friends, and to this day, I still have had no contact with anyone from that office.
This situation has affected how I see people at my current job. I have been here for two years and haven't made any friends. This is also a family-owned company run by six siblings, all very pleasant. But I keep to myself and am very isolated and lonely at work. I just can't bring myself to open up. I come in early every day, do my job and then go home. Although everyone is nice, no one knows much about me. I'm still carrying so much hurt. I don't know how to get past it and move on.
We’re so sorry to hear about this uprooting experience. It stings when loyalty only goes one way between employers and employees.
Although working in family-owned businesses is often rewarding, it comes with unique perils. Especially during hard times, non-family members can be treated as outsiders. We understand your disappointment in your colleagues, but given the bullying and public humiliation associated with your firing, it’s not surprising that these co-workers would be hesitant to come to your defense.
Now that you’re again working in a family-owned business, your hesitancy in forming personal bonds with people at your new job is understandable. Friendships at work can be a double-edged sword: At their best, they can be personally rewarding and enhance productivity. But at their worst - as happened to you - they turn out to be perilous.
You are wise to focus on your work in this family-owned business rather than depending on it as the sole source of your friendships. While we understand that you spend much of your time at work, this only illuminates the fact of how important it is to cultivate friendships outside the office.
Since two years have passed and you still feel traumatized by this incident, it might be helpful for you to speak to a counselor or other mental health professional to find ways to move forward.
We hope this advice is helpful.
Irene & Sheryl
*This article on workplace friendships by Dr. Levine, published by the American Association of the Advancement of Science, may be helpful reading.
Friendships at work, while rewarding, often come with perils; approach them cautiously.
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