It was in 2010 when I realized that establishing work friendships was important. I had started working at my second internship which was—at that point in my life—the closest to full-time work I had experienced. The office was preparing to launch a major initiative that my coworker and I were hired to coordinate. Both of us were college students. Neither of us had any experience doing something like this.
While he and I grew closer, I found myself retreating to an older black woman to help me process and handle the hardships of the project: the poor instruction, the lack of guidance, the dysfunctional leadership, and ultimately, the challenges on the day of. She became a sounding board for me during difficult times, and when I decided it was time for me to move on, she was there as well; supporting me boldly and covering for me as my attitude became reflective of my unhappiness.
Despite the popular belief that work is no place to make friends, I have always believed in the power of work friendships. I thought that, if nothing else, those friendships could certainly help pass the time. They could make the darkest day a little brighter and add humor to the dullest work meetings.
But it wasn't until I experienced the love of an older black woman in a toxic workspace that I realized that work friendships were not only important for my enjoyment of a role but that they are critical to my progress and success as a young professional black woman. Here's why:
Find your "work auntie", find your champion.
That's what I call them—work aunties. A term of endearment for only the most well-intentioned, supportive, nurturing female co-workers.
At every job that I'd had for more than a year, there's been an older black woman (or two) who's been willing to go to war for—and with—me. Women who knew how to support me in the throes of a trying work culture. Women whose prayers have revived and re-centered me when I was preparing to jump off the deep end.
They will lift you up time and time again.
They've helped me navigate difficult breakups and made themselves available to me during mid-work breakdowns. They've told me about myself when my personal life was impeding on my work performance—and would cover me just the same when I couldn't muster up the strength to focus on improving it.
Wonderful black (and some, white) women who affirmed me when impostor syndrome and self-doubt set in. Women who knew my worth and made sure others knew it as well. Women who petitioned for me for promotions, special projects, and raises. Women who didn't have to do any of that but chose to anyway.
See, as a young 20-something-year-old, those relationships were critical to my professional growth—especially as a woman of color. And that shared responsibility of love and support in the workplace wasn't foreign to me either.
In return, you can be a bomb af "work niece".
Offering love and support to the women who felt stuck and unfulfilled. I added a bit of laughter and intercession to the women who spent all day supporting others. I provided a millennial perspective to those who had children my age and added a drop of understanding to their parenthood.
There's so much untapped value in cultivating tight-knit friendships in the place you spend most of your waking hours. There's comfort in being able to confide in people who know exactly what you mean when you discuss colleagues, the demands of your job, or the toxic work culture. There's beauty in being able to walk into a co-worker's office, close their door, and cry to keep yourself from quitting. Beyond just professional benefits—references, a network, and growth opportunities—there's this inconceivable beauty created by forging meaningful friendships with co-workers.
It's the much-needed gift that keeps on giving if you allow it.
While I've never started a job hoping to make friends, some of the most meaningful friendships I've had have been cultivated through work. They've been nurtured by break room vent sessions; honored by "I'm running late, cover for me" text messages; and protected by "let's get this done together" project collaborations.
We've formed prayer groups during our lunch hour and started walking groups for the sake of mental health and physical fitness. We've celebrated each other's promotions and supported each other's personal work.
And while I know work relationships like this are rare, I also know that they are possible. I merely suggest that, instead of shying away from them, women begin to pursue and embrace them. I pray that women find work aunties and become them, too. And largely, I hope that these relationships begin to help you just as much as they've helped me.
Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:
Featured image by Shutterstock.