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Why being friends with your co-workers is more of a minefield than ever

In the wake of Phillip Schofield’s departure from ‘This Morning’, ITV has reportedly updated its HR policies, meaning staff now have to declare close friendships with colleagues. It’s sure to be a minefield for workers, says Katie Rosseinsky

Wednesday 25 October 2023 13:48 BST
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<p>Ex besties: ‘This Morning’ duo Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield before he resigned </p>

Ex besties: ‘This Morning’ duo Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield before he resigned

You’d happily go to the pub with them on a Thursday, but definitely not on a Saturday (that would be weird). You know everything about their flatmate/partner/kids (delete as appropriate) but you’ve never actually met their loved ones. In fact, the prospect of going round to their house feels slightly surreal (there’s still part of you that’s convinced they de-materialise when they leave the office). Navigating the intricacies of a workplace friendship can be confusing at the best of times – and for ITV employees, it’s set to get even more complicated.

In the wake of Phillip Schofield’s resignation earlier this year, which came after the This Morning presenter admitted to an “unwise but not illegal” affair with a colleague, the broadcaster is reportedly asking its staff to declare any office relationships, be they romantic or completely platonic.

According to The Sunday Times, the broadcaster’s newly updated “personal relationships at work policy” apparently instructs workers to disclose details of any bond between them and their colleagues at the earliest opportunity. That might include any family links, a “close connection such as a partner or significant other”, someone “living in the same household”, or “anyone involved in a sexual, romantic or close relationship or friendship (whether short or longer term)”.

Staff, the paper claims, have been asked to share names of any associates, along with the “nature” of their relationships, on a Google Forms questionnaire; one anonymous worker has described said document as “properly mad”, with another branding it “a step too far”. Connections to freelancers, contractors and work experience candidates will have to be revealed, too, with anyone who breaches the rule potentially facing disciplinary action and even the loss of their job. The broadcaster, meanwhile, said in a statement that it “has had in place a policy on relationships at work since October 2022”, which was “most recently reviewed and updated in October 2023”.

Naturally, this raises a whole load of pressing conundrums. Will Ant and Dec have to declare each other as lifelong pals? Does the theatrical artist Lorraine Kelly actually have any close workplace friendships, or are those connections an illusion, merely part of the notoriously “friendly, chatty and fun” persona she embodies on screen? But more importantly, it also inadvertently puts the whole concept of office friendships – namely, when does someone you share desk space and the occasional work-specific in-joke with become an actual mate? – under the microscope.

Disclosing romantic relationships in the workplace is pretty standard practice, as “they’re potentially higher stakes when it comes to conflicts of interest or complications, and they’re also clearer to define”, says Dr Alex Gapud, cultural anthropologist at employee engagement consultancy scarlettabbott. “But when it comes to disclosing friendship,” he adds, “of course, the boundary isn’t clear between acquaintance, work friend [or] friend, and I think that can make [this] policy tricky to enforce on top of there being question marks about compliance and self-reporting.”

Once you’ve left the school playground behind, friendship can be a difficult thing to quantify. It’s nearly impossible to predict exactly where or when a bond will form, and work friendships are particularly difficult to pin down. That journey from work friend to “real” friend is a mysterious one. You could sit next to someone for years and barely go beyond surface-level pleasantries and commiserating over IT problems (to quote Tim from The Office, “all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day”). Or you could discover your platonic soulmate while queuing up to use the communal microwave.

When it comes to disclosing friendship, of course, the boundary isn’t clear between acquaintance, work friend [or] friend

Dr Alex Gapud

Often it’s more of a slow burn, a camaraderie that sneaks up on you both after months of trading bits of gossip and mutual eye-rolling during meetings. Sometimes there’s an inciting event that bridges the gap between work friendship and straightforward, no-qualifying-words-needed friendship. I’m pretty sure I can trace my genuine affinity with one former colleague to the aftermath of some Christmas drinks, when we both eventually realised she’d accidentally walked out wearing a coat belonging to someone else entirely. One straight-talking co-worker was characteristically upfront about promoting me from a deskmate to an actual mate. “Well, it’s a Saturday, so I suppose this means we’re friends now,” she told me briskly while we queued up for cinema tickets (psychologists refer to friendships made up of formal and informal elements as “multiplex relationships”, which feels particularly apt here).

Workplace friendships can be difficult to quantify

But how would you know when to define these connections as “close”? What about the mortifying prospect of flagging your bond with a co-worker in the HR-mandated Google Form, only for that person to not reciprocate the gesture? And what happens if you need to downgrade someone if things go awry, like when relations reportedly became strained between Schofield and his on-screen bestie Holly Willoughby? It’s a hypothetical scenario that will be deeply triggering for anyone who remembers the crushing ignominy of carefully placing someone in your Top Eight on MySpace, then realising that you’re nowhere to be seen in theirs. Friendship is a deeply subjective thing. “How many times have we thought we were closer to a friend than they thought we were?” Gapud asks. “Then if you add in social events at work and after-work drinks, what merits disclosure [to HR] and what doesn’t?”

Of course, there are a few obvious advantages to having to set out your connections to your co-workers in black and white. As well as being alerted to any potentially inappropriate relationships, HR might be able to better track whether people are entering an organisation through nepotism, for example, or to see if a boss keeps over-promoting their favourites.  And yet having to put a label on the nuanced connections we have with our colleagues is surely a recipe for awkwardness.

The risk is that this kind of policy sets a tone of policing – and therefore discouraging – friendship and social connection

Dr Alex Gapud

It also has the accidental side effect of making intra-office friendships feel dubious or clandestine – when there’s plenty of evidence to show that employers should actually be encouraging us to get on with our colleagues. A study from the workplace consulting firm Gallup found that having a best friend at work has become even more important since the pandemic, linked to increased overall satisfaction and likelihood of recommending their employer (it also makes workers less likely to decide to leave, too).

As a workplace anthropologist, Gapud is driven by the mantra that “work is social and relational” – it’s not just about what we do, but who we work with and who we work for. “The risk is that this kind of policy sets a tone of policing – and therefore discouraging – friendship and social connection, which makes people less inclined to form the kind of friendships at work that can drive employee experience, engagement, culture and collaboration,” he notes.

And if ITV staff have to tell HR about their friendships, will they have to open up about their nemeses too, to balance things out? Spare a thought for whoever gets tasked with sifting through the tangled web of reported “feuds” between the Loose Women panellists and all the other daytime TV rivalries inevitably bubbling below the surface.

The Independent has contacted ITV for comment

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