Sex and Sex-Composition Differences and Similarities in Peer Workplace Friendship Development

By Sias, Patricia M.; Smith, Guy et al. | Communication Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Sex and Sex-Composition Differences and Similarities in Peer Workplace Friendship Development


Sias, Patricia M., Smith, Guy, Avdeyeva, Tatyana, Communication Studies


As Wheatley (1994) notes, "none of us exists independent of our relationships with others" (p. 34). Relationships are the foundation of how we define ourselves (Bateson, 1980) and are the substance of organizations (Wheatley, 1994). With few exceptions, peer relationships are the most plentiful type of workplace relationship (Porter & Roberts, 1973), as well as one of the most important. Peer relationships provide employees with emotional support, intrinsic reward, and help reduce employee stress and job dissatisfaction (Kram & Isabella, 1985). Peer relationships also play a primary role in organizational socialization processes as employees often turn to peers for help in making sense of their workplace environment (Fritz, 1997; Louis, Posner & Powell, 1983; Miller & Jablin, 1991).

Peer relationships often develop into affiliative bonds known as friendships which fulfill several important functions for both organizations and individuals. In particular, workplace friendships serve as informal communication systems, providing employees with information about career advancement opportunities, policy changes, and other organizational news (Rawlins, 1992). Friends also give one another support, influence one another's decisions, and enhance each other's commitment to the organization (Lincoln & Miller, 1979).

Employees privy to the information-sharing, support, and decision making influence that occur in workplace friendships enjoy a distinct advantage over those left out of these relationships. Isolation from workplace friendships means isolation from important information necessary for optimal job performance and career advancement (Mattis, 1990). Kanter (1977) found that exclusion from informal friendship networks comprised primarily of men is a central reason women find it difficult to be promoted to high level organizational positions. More recent scholarship also designates informal workplace friendships as an important contributor to the "glass ceiling" (Milwid, 1992; White, 1992). An understanding of why and how women and men become friends with coworkers may provide insights useful for addressing issues such as sexual discrimination and bias. Such understanding was the goal of the present study.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Workplace Friendship Development

Two defining characteristics of friendship make workplace friendships a unique type of workplace relationship. First, friendships are voluntary (Rawlins, 1992; Wright, 1978). They develop by choice, not compulsion. This characteristic distinguishes workplace friendships from other peer coworker relationships in that individuals do not typically choose their peer coworkers. They do, however, choose which of those coworkers to befriend. Second, friendships are characterized by a personalistic focus where partners treat one another as whole persons rather than mere role occupants (Wright, 1978). This distinguishes peer friendships from other peer relationships which may be focused solely on the individuals' organizational roles.

Despite their importance, workplace friendships have received little research attention, particularly with respect to how such friendships develop. Workplace relationships vary from "friendly relations" to closer friendships that transcend the workplace boundary (Rawlins, 1992). The functions of these relationships vary as well from career advancement to emotional support, affirmation, and interdependence (Maines, 1981; Wright, 1978, 1985). Examining the ways "friends" become "close friends" and "best friends" provides a deeper understanding of these phenomena. Toward this end, Sias and Cahill (1998) conducted the only study to date of peer workplace friendship development, identifying the individual and contextual factors that influence the development of such relationships. Their small sample comprised primarily of women, however, prevented examination of differences and similarities in the ways men and women develop workplace friendships.

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