RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
IN HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

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Dickie, C. (2009). Exploring Workplace Friendships in Business: Cultural Variations of Employee Behaviour, Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, 17(1), 128-137.

Exploring Workplace Friendships in Business: Cultural Variations of Employee Behaviour

Carolyn Dickie

Abstract

Teams, and their inherent friendship networks, are an increasingly important architectural dimension of local, national and international business organisations. Indeed, there is worldwide recognition that team based organisational arrangements, such as self managed, cross functional and semi autonomous work groups manifest the ‘workplace friendship’ phenomenon to underpin more creative and informed business related decision making that can lead to improved customer service and heightened productive quality. This paper reports a preliminary exploration of the construct of workplace friendship, and in particular, the generalisability of the Workplace Friendship Scale with data from 359 respondents from five different countries. The study results demonstrate the scale was multi faceted in terms of time, context, informality and communication. Also, the study results indicate that the Workplace Friendship Scale is reliable and can be used with confidence in multi cultural research to evaluate HRM variable related frameworks. The findings of the study indicate that employees consider workplace friendships are a critical component of a healthy, supportive working environment. Friendship and teamwork can have a significant impact on organisational stability and productivity. Therefore, subsequent implications for HRM policy and practice are likely to be profound.

Introduction

Increasingly, the workplace is the “…main crucible for making friends…” (Shellenbarger 2000:B1), as community organisations and personal networks in neighbourhoods are weakened by catastrophic dislocations. This argument is supported by changes in the use of teamwork in organisations, the growth in organic organisations, the changing nature and size of local, state and national organisations and degrees of globalisation (Wild, et al. 2007) in the pursuit of different organisational architectures to respond positively and effectively to conundrums. Furthermore, workers tend to spend an increasing portion of their time in their place of employment, and as interpersonal relationships among co workers are encouraged and improved, communications associated with work related outcomes can lead to friendships (Morrison 2004). Similarly, organisational systems of training and development, social support, job involvement and job rotation are designed as group rather than individual activities to influence job satisfaction and organisational commitment (Riordan & Griffeth 1995).

Recent research has established that “…numerous close friendships evolve from existing formal relationships and places, and for many people, these relationships are maintained within the organisational setting…” (Morrison 2004:114). In addition to friendships being a substantial part of the exercise of creating essential human values (Song 2006), they influence individual attitudes and behaviours which are shared with fellow employees (Sias, et al. 2004). These outcomes can have the potential to decrease the negative attitudes of employees by reducing narrow self interest (Fine 1986). Thus, the importance of friendship has become a prominent feature of more successful sustainable institutions (Klein & Kim 1998).

Friendship is an unique dimension of the workplace. Mao (2006) claims the phenomenon is voluntary, includes an individual bond and is for personal, socio emotional benefits. Other workplace relationships, which are imposed, have a work role bond and are for organisational, work related benefits (Mao 2006). However, Riordan and Griffeth (1995) argue that employees’ perceptions of opportunities for friendships in the workplace can have direct effects on job focus, motivation and satisfaction as well as indirect effects on employee commitment, and, therefore, productivity. Furthermore, Riordan and Griffeth (1995) claim that the implications for management of workplace friendship, and social features within the workplace, need to be considered seriously as these dimensions have potential to manifest competitive advantage. An alternative view is provided by Yager (1999), who suggests that workplace friendships can be costly to an organisation’s productivity, particularly when they go awry; therefore, workplace friendship should not be overtly encouraged by organisations. More recently, workplace friendship has been related to work attitudes, work team climate and interpersonal exchange relationships (Song & Olshfski 2008, Tse, Dasborough & Ashkanasy 2008).

The differing viewpoints that have emerged from researchers on the topic of workplace friendship and the salient nature of the topic, warrants further study (Nielson, Jex & Adams 2000). Thus, the current research question was based on whether or not an existing workplace friendship instrument was appropriate to examine the uniqueness of workplace friendship in several cultures. This paper, then, is a report on the confidence with which the Workplace Friendship Scale can be applied internationally and its relevance to those interested in the theory and practice of HRM as well as HR professionals. In order to examine a concept, firstly it must be understood. Therefore, the paper will begin with an attempt to define friendship out of a number of the contradictory studies that have occurred on workplace friendship to date. The benefits and disadvantages that have been identified in previous studies will be noted as well as relevant, more current research examined.

Defining the Concept of Friendship

Behind the notion of workplace friendship there is a fundamental uncertainty as to what constitutes a ‘friend’. Friendship figures at the top of a list when people are asked what gives meaning to their life. Nevertheless, the dynamics of friendship remain mysterious and unquantifiable (Karbo 2006). Indeed, Allan (1996) has argued that there is a lack of firmly agreed and socially acknowledged criteria for what makes a person a friend.

A more complex description of friendship is provided by Helm (2005). Her view is that friendship is central to our life and raises a special moral concern that helps shape the personality of people.
Therefore, friendship can be examined in categories such as:

A number of modern writers (Pahl 2000, Doyle & Smith 2002, Mao 2006) present friendship as private, voluntary and happening between autonomous individuals. However, these connotations do not align easily with the classical view of friendship which is derived from a particular view of selfhood.

Views of Friendship

During the 18th century Adam Smith (1759, 1776) linked the new commercialism of market relationships and exchanges which created conditions for a move towards benevolent forms of friendship in societies and organisations. Industrialisation and urbanisation influenced the growth of an anonymous and impersonal world of the city where long hours of work and changing work conditions left little space or wherewithal to enjoy friendly relations. By the 1880s around 75 to 80 per cent of working class men belonged to a friendly society and were involved in mutual improvement activities described as ‘friends educating each other’ (e.g., churches and chapels, trade unions and associations, or political and co operative groups) that entailed utility and some pleasure and interest in the good (Doyle & Smith 2002). Arguably, Adam Smith was among the first to recognise the concept of workplace friendship as a social phenomena that could be used by organisations to improve productivity.

Today, the experience of friendship tends to run from a central assumption that friendship (within different societies) is ‘wrapped up’ with aspects of the social and economic lives of people. Also, because it tends to be a product of time and place, Doyle and Smith (2002: 8,9) note three important points:

Having provided some background literature and understanding of the concept of the friendship construct, a review of the literature specifically related to workplace friendship was undertaken. A summary of that review is presented in the following section.

Benefits and Disadvantages of Workplace Friendships

Since the claim that workplace friendship was relatively under examined by researchers and scholars (Winstead & Derlega 1986, Allan 1989) there have been studies to show that workplace friendship:

Reasons why the positive impact of workplace friendship has been undervalued or overlooked tend to include the following:

From this evaluation of the literature related to workplace friendships it is clear that there is much disagreement among theoreticians as to the utility of workplace friendships. Therefore, more recent research is examined in the following section.

Recent Research

Pahl (2000) has argued that friendship is becoming an increasingly important ‘social glue’. However, while societies are held together by very different social bonds than in past centuries, kinship obligations, civic/organisational responsibilities and “… the mutual care of reciprocities engendered by being trapped in communities of fate…” (Pahl 2000: 5) have weakened. In addition to the complexities of definition and practice, there has been a deepening of the concept of friendship. “… expectations and aspirations are growing and people are even prepared to judge the quality of our relationships with kin on the basis of some higher ideal of whether individuals can be closer to them as friends …” (Pahl 2000: 8).

The measurement of friendships in the workplace is relatively new. Furthermore, the importance of and difficulty in studying workplace friendships should not be underestimated and is reliant on the use of reliable and valid research measures. Morrison (2006) undertook a substantial, western cultural focussed examination of the Workplace Friendship Scale developed in a uni cultural setting by Nielsen and colleagues (2000). When Morrison investigated the two factor structure of friendship in terms of prevalence and opportunities she found the friendship ‘prevalence’ sub scale accounted for very little of the variance in other organisational variables (commitment, satisfaction, cohesion and turnover intention). These results indicated support for the convergent and nomological validity of the friendship ‘opportunities’ sub scale.

The current paper, reports an exploration of the Workplace Friendship Scale (WFS) developed by Nielsen and colleagues (2000). A feature of the document is a comparison of the Morrison (2006) findings. In her study Morrison evaluated the scales of prevalence and opportunities, and reported coefficient alphas of .70 and .81, respectively. As the WFS was being critiqued Morrison used factor analysis on the twelve item scale with a maximum likelihood extraction (Chen 2003) and direct oblimin rotation rather than orthogonal rotation.

It is shown in Table 1 that all the items of the original WFS, with the items remaining after Morrison’s (2006) factor analysis.

Table 1
Items in the workplace friendship scale
Friendship opportunity dimension Friendship prevalence dimension
1. I have the opportunity to get to know my co workers
2. I am able to work with my co workers to collectively solve problems
3. In my organisation I have the opportunity to talk informally and visit with others
4. Communication among employees is encouraged by my organisation
5. I have the opportunity to develop close friendships at my workplace
6. Informal talk is tolerated by my organisation as long as the work is completed
7. I have formed strong friendships at work
8. I socialise with co workers outside the workplace
9. I can confide in people at work
10. I feel I can trust many co workers a great deal
11. Being able to see my co workers is one reason I look forward to my job
12. I do not feel that anyone I work with is a true friend (R)

Notes: a. Adapted from: Nielsen, et al. (2000), with bold items remaining after Morrison’s (2006) factor analysis.
b. R is a reverse item.

Methodology

Participants

Data were obtained from 359 respondents from five different countries who represented a convenience sample of currently employed persons known to the researchers. These respondents ranged from 19 to 62 years in age, with a mean age of 35.5 years. There was a range of respondents’ workplace industries/ sectors with the overwhelming majority of persons undertaking professional level occupations in large corporations or government (e.g., engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses, senior managers). Consequently, the results may be unique to that group and should not be generalised as representing the country or its citizenry as a whole. Only the respondents from Canada would be considered to be from a Western country, and the international mix does provide a more varied cultural flavour than earlier studies which tend to have data only from American respondents (Winstead, et al. 1995, Nielsen, et al. 2000, Richer, Blanchard & Vallerand 2002). A demographic summary is provided in Table 2.

Table 2
Demographics %: (N=359)
Gender Males 39.8
Females 60.2
Age (years) < 20 1.9
20-29 37.6
30-39 31.8
40-49 17.6
50-59 9.7
> 59 1.4
Country China 32.0
Vietnam 10.6
Kazakstan 19.5
Canada 13.9
Taiwan 24.0

Procedure

The Workplace Friendship Scale developed by Neilson and colleagues (2000) was the instrument used in the current study. The current research was a brief, exploratory study to gather data and test the WFS instrument in light of Morrison’s (2006) findings. Therefore, basic statistical analysis was used and from, that recommendations for further, more directed research are made. Initial contact was made with the participants through expatriate nationals from each of the five countries living in Perth. The paper based survey was translated and back translated into the five languages involved and dispersed to the participants in their national language. Also, responses were translated into English and back translated to verify content. The survey was dispersed to 399 people and 359 responses were received giving a response rate of 90 per cent.

Measures

Data were gathered by using a self administered questionnaire, described as the Workplace Friendship Scale. Primarily the scale is built on two aspects of friendship in the workplace; (a) the opportunity for friendship (e.g., I have the opportunity to get to know my co workers), and (b) the presence of friendship (e.g., I have formed strong friendships at work). The 12 items in the scale are rated on a five point Likert scale from strongly disagree (scored as one) to strongly agree (scored as five). One item was reverse scored. Neilsen, et al. (2000) assessed the two six item sub scales for their reliability regarding internal consistency, with Cronbach alpha results of .84 and .89 for the friendship ‘opportunities’ and ‘prevalence’ sub scales, respectively. Further, their analysis supported the two dimensional concept of the scale and provided adequate evidence of construct validity. Thus, the Workplace Friendship Scale does appear to identify reliable scores and to measure the two dimensions of friendship in the workplace.

Analysis

Factor analysis, incorporating the varimax option, was undertaken to determine whether or not earlier research findings (Neilsen, et al. 2000, Morrison 2006) on opportunity and prevalence could be confirmed. A one way ANOVA was used to test the equality of the mean responses across the five countries. The basic assumptions for the use of ANOVA were met. The null hypothesis is that all population means are equal whereas the alternative hypothesis is that at least one mean is different. Finally, Principal component analysis, at a significance level of 0.45, was used to transform the data to a new coordinate system to identify underlying components of variance.

Results

During factor analysis the data were ‘forced’ into the two factors identified by Neilson, et al. (2000) and Morrison (2006). While results did confirm that the two factors were identifiable in workplace friendships, only 40.44 per cent of the variance in employee behaviour was explained in the cross cultural setting of the current study and substantially different configurations of items were obtained. Forcing the data in the current study into the two factors did not suggest the same pattern of coefficients as had been obtained in previous studies. The two factor result suggested further analysis was necessary to get a more complete understanding of the factors involved in using the WFS (Neilsen, et al. 2000) in a cross cultural setting.

In principal component analysis, the varimax rotation method involved the Kaiser normalisation and four main components were identified with 58.16 per cent of the variance, which is shown in Table 3. The major component related to the friendship concept (time and place of the workplace friendship) and combined six of the 12 questions. The second component related to informality aspects of the friendship, including its value as a workplace motivator. The third component related to workplace communication, (aspects included the role of the organisation in encouraging worker communication and shared problem solving). Question 12 provided a stand out score as the fourth component and was labelled. Despite the significant factor correlation of 0.838 the single item does not allow for a reliability assessment of the factor. Further factor analysis, including and excluding question 1, was run on the first factor to test the reliability of the final item. Results indicated that while the factor loading of question 1 may be low it did belong with that factor.

Table 3
Principal component analysis
Question Factors
1 2 3 4
Eigenvalues 2.745 1.666 1.383 1.186
Percentage of variance explained 22.872 13.887 11.525 9.880
Cumulative percentage of variance explained 22.872 36.759 48.285 58.164
7. I have formed strong friendships at work .766 .173 -.135 -.033
8. I socialise with co workers outside the workplace .713 .064 -.035 .188
5. I have the opportunity to develop close friendships at my workplace .684 .045 .189 -.256
9. I can confide in people at work .658 -.007 .384 .040
10. I feel I can trust many co workers a great deal .514 .201 .402 .145
1. I have the opportunity to get to know my co workers .452 .275 .257 -.154
3. In my organisation I have the opportunity to talk informally and visit with others .179 .769 .063 -.067
6. Informal talk is tolerated by my organisation as long as the work is completed -.068 .731 .305 .105
11. Being able to see my co workers is one reason I look forward to my job .44 .570 -.157 .190
4. Communication among employees is encouraged by my organisation .191 .235 .701 -.158
2. I am able to work with my co workers to collectively solve problems -.086 -.045 .581 .508
12. I do not feel that anyone I work with is a true friend (R) .048 .088 -.038 .838

Notes: a. Factor 1 = Friendship concept, Factor 2 = Informality, Factor 3 = Workshop communication, and Factor 4 = Workplace friendship recognition.
b. R is a reverse item.

Discussion

Despite the current study being of an exploratory nature, the findings have provided a set of encouraging data. The differentiation of the WFS into the two dimensions of ‘opportunity’ and ‘prevalence’ has been shown to be relevant, although the relationship between these dimensions has not been explained in a cross cultural setting that included non Western respondents. It could be argued that ‘opportunity’ is a necessary pre cursor of ‘prevalence’ although the WFS does not make that distinction. It appears that the variables are related to a ‘friendly workplace’ and the ‘making of friends’. However, the data adds to the Morrison (2006:17) argument that “…the Friendship Prevalence sub-scale simply does not adequately reflect the complexity of adult friendship…”. Whilst this may be true, the principal component analysis in the current study suggests that eleven of the twelve questions directly relate to the friendship concept, informality and workplace communication in business. In addition, the results of the Principal Component Analysis (Table 3) strongly suggest that there are workplace friendship factors other than opportunity and prevalence that can be addressed in future research. Further research is needed to extend the number of items in three of the four identified factors.

Further examination of the quantitative and qualitative data from the current study can lead to a refinement of the WFS instrument for use in cross cultural settings. Once the WFS instrument, and its back translation’ is adequately verified, it is suggested that future research be undertaken to generate data that will establish information on the social and organisational values of workplace friendships.
Questions such as those suggested below could be addressed in future studies.

  1. What makes a genuinely friendly workplace?
  2. What’s best for an organisation, collegial relationships or opportunities for friendship?
  3. What are the various types of friendship?
  4. What is the link between workplace friendships and organisational outcomes?
  5. What is the difference between working relationships and workplace friendships?
  6. Who is responsible for developing opportunities for workplace friendships?
  7. Are there different expectations about workplace friendships by employees from diverse cultures?
  8. In what ways can managers make use of workplace friendship information?

Furthermore, a number of open ended questions could be designed to address topics that connect workplace friendship more directly with HRM issues (e.g., mixed status relationships, individual and organisational interpersonal relationships, work group interactions, extra role behaviours, job characteristics and the informal rules of workplace relationships).

Conclusion

This paper has examined the use of the Workplace Friendship Scale developed by Neilsen and colleagues (2000) in a uni cultural environment and examined the outcomes in light of the Morrison (2006) Western culturally focussed findings in an exploratory study in a broader cross cultural setting. The results indicate that whilst there are significant differences between the underlying factors when the Workplace friendship Scale is applied in a broader cross cultural setting, the scale can be used with confidence in this environment. The overriding conclusion is that workplace friendship has become a more current topic in the sense that it relates very closely to how individuals operate in teams and organisations as a whole. Workplace friendship is a phenomenon that has a range of theoretical and practical HR implications that support the need for further, more direct research. Therefore, information gathered using the Workplace Friendship Scale may be used with confidence to inform the development of more global HR policies and practices.

Author

Carolyn Dickie PhD, is a lecturer in the School of Management at Curtin University of Technology. Her research interests include human resource management, international business, ethics in business and cross cultural studies. She maintains a practical interest in these research matters by being a member of a number of organisational management boards.

Email : carolyn.dickie@cbs.curtin.edu.au

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