Fraternizing at Work Benefits Us at All

Reprinted from UCLA Today

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“How about we go out for a beer after work?” It seems like an innocent suggestion from a coworker, but if you’re both not of the same sex, it can have many interpretations: What is the intent behind the invitation? Does your coworker really just want to have a beer, or is there an insinuation — and expectation — of more? What will your other coworkers think?

True, after-work socializing can be a time to network, make new friends and possibly share ideas with a senior employee. Yet in this era of heightened concern about sexual harassment and the taboo of workplace romance, many men and women choose to forego any non-work-related activities with coworkers who are not same-sex.

A recent study that I coauthored found several reasons why professionals of both sexes are altering their behavior toward cross-sex coworkers. Males reported limiting their conversations with female coworkers, fearing that their jokes or humor would be misinterpreted as sexual harassment. Females reported that their male coworkers seemed uncomfortable around women and cautious in their conversations with them. Both groups were concerned that their overtures would be misinterpreted as romantic interest. All in all, these issues lead to a preference for same-sex friends at work.

However, because friendships at work can be essential to career success, employees who only develop same-sex friendships may not be achieving their career potential. Besides providing potentially useful information about what’s going on in an organization, friends, both male and female, can offer mentoring and vital emotional support.

One of the study’s surprising implications is that a preference for same-sex friends most likely impacts women’s careers more than those of men. This is particularly true in male-dominated environments where women need to develop cross-sex friendships just to have a sufficient number of friends at work. Besides, women who successfully climb the male-dominated corporate ladder need to develop cross-sex friendships in order to network with their male peers. By contrast, men in female-dominated environments, such as nursing, often have other men at the management level they can befriend.

These obstacles to developing cross-sex friendships create what I call a “glass partition” for women. Just as the well-known “glass ceiling” keeps women from reaching the top levels of corporations, the glass partition keeps them from creating the cross-sex friendships necessary for career success.

Although cross-sex friendships may be more difficult to initiate than same-sex friendships regardless of organizational practices, there are some steps organizations should take to break down the glass partition. For example, while sexual harassment training at work is important and necessary, some assessment of the unintended effects of that training is also warranted.

Organizations should consider amending their sexual harassment training to reduce fear among employees that they may inadvertently harass a cross-sex coworker. In addition, organizations should sponsor social gatherings to facilitate cross-sex interactions, thereby encouraging cross-sex friendships more naturally. Efforts to break down the glass partition and encourage the development of new cross-sex friendships will go a long way in benefiting both employees and organizations.