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Liz still shudders when she recalls her first job after college, where she spent many miserable months in retail hell. "I worked for a clothing retailer, spending hours and hours folding T-shirts," says Liz, 32, from Mountain View, California. But as bad as it was, Liz says she wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world. Because that's where she met her best friend, Chris. "We would vent, laugh, and basically endure our horrid retail existence with each other," says Liz.
Fourteen years later, Liz and Chris and still best friends. "I was in her wedding and her baby boy is the apple of my eye. I know her entire family, and she stood by me through the death of my father and my mother's cancer scare," says Liz.
Even in the best jobs, a good office ally can help keep you sane. "For a lot of women, the office is their neighborhood," says Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Keeping, and Making Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore (Rodale, 2004). "It's where you spend most of your time and do most of your socializing."
If you don't have family nearby, your work colleagues can often be a proxy family. Paul recalls one office where everyone created a meal tree for a coworker who was ill -- they took turns bringing dinner to her for weeks. "These are people who can really support you," says Paul.
A work friend can also offer feedback that, say, your husband can't. "They are the ones who can say, 'No, the boss doesn't hate you. She's just in a bad mood today. She's being cranky with everyone,'" says Paul.
They can even help you do a better job. Kristina and Sarah, both 27, work together at a Boston PR firm. "We push each other and help one another evolve both personally and professionally, which has been noticed by management -- we both got promoted this year," says Kristina.
Of course, not all workplace friendships remain in this state of mutual support and cheerleading. As with all friendships, sometimes your office alliance goes south -- the difference is that you still have to deal with this person every day, and that can be as awkward as a workplace romance that went awry.
Natalie still doesn't understand what happened between her and her former friend, Deirdra. She only knows that she's fallen out of favor with her work friends, and the consequences have been devastating. "She's the ringleader of the social scene here, and I'm seeing a big change. I'm no longer invited to coworker events such as birthday parties. I'm no longer invited to eat lunch with people or go to happy hours after work," says Natalie, 28, from Washington, D.C.
This situation not only makes coming to work painful, it's affecting her life outside the office. "When I began this job in a new city, these people were my only friends and now it seems I have no one left," says Natalie.
Sound like high school? Sadly, office social circles can operate much like teen cliques. "This is a classic 'frienemy,'" says Dr. Erika Karres, who is currently researching a book on friendship. "She pretends to be your friend, but really sabotages and undermines you."
But unlike high school, unpopularity in the office can affect more than your chances of being invited to a cool party Saturday night. It can do serious damage to your career, since you never know what the backstabbers are saying -- and to whom. "It can be really uncomfortable for everyone if an office friendship goes bad," says Paul. "So you need to tread carefully and make sure you're dealing with someone you can trust."
How to strike a balance? Paul says it's essential to make sure that you don't invest your entire emotional life in the office. Having friends outside of work will not only make you less vulnerable to the slings and arrows of office politics, it will also enable you to be more discreet. "It's much easier to have healthy boundaries if you aren't overly dependent on your work friends," says Paul.
Paul doesn't believe you need to keep all workplace pals at arm's length -- it's only natural that you'll make close friends during the 9-to-5 hours. However, you need to choose them wisely. Don't become fast friends with that new chick who just transferred from Cincinnati, no matter how fabulous she seems. Be friendly and invite her to lunch if you like, but don't start bad-mouthing the boss the third time you talk to her -- such carelessness could really haunt you later. "Not everyone needs to be your close confidante. It's a sign of maturity to recognize that there are different levels of friends," says Paul.
One way to know if your office pal is a true soul mate is to see how you two do outside the office -- do you have anything to talk about beyond your anxieties about the latest round of layoffs or Joe and Carol's affair? "I've heard from women who left jobs thinking they had wonderful friends. But once they leave the office, that's it. The friendship doesn't translate," says Paul.
For Kristina and Sarah, their time together outside work is just as valuable as their time on the job. "We have dinner together with our husbands and friends," says Kristina. "And we're always up for the after-work manicure and pedicure, where we vow not to talk about work."