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Do you really need a best friend at work
Jason McPherson, founding scientist at Culture Amp

Jason McPherson

Chief Scientist, Culture Amp

We're sometimes asked why we don't have the 'best friend at work' question in our employee engagement surveys.

Apart from it being a copyrighted question, we have a few good reasons - it's confusing, too narrowly worded, and it's not related to engagement or retention. We'll explore those shortcomings and suggest a set of four alternative questions you can use to understand how your workplace is building relationships. 

1. It's confusing

The question consists of the statement 'I have a best friend at work' accompanied by an agreement scale. However, we've found a lot of confusion around the meaning of this question:

  • Does it mean my best friend works with me?
  • Does it mean that I have a colleague who I like more than others who I would consider a friend?
  • Does it mean I can identify someone as being more friendly than my other colleagues?
  • Does it mean I have a colleague with whom I feel comfortable sharing jokes?

Many people tell us they have a 'good' or 'close' friend at work, but 'best friend' is often described as confusing.

2. It's too narrowly worded

If we want a question to assess how well managers facilitate close friendships at work it seems odd to frame it around having a 'best friend' because this is a term people reserve for a very singular and special relationship. Even in the narrower context of someone having a 'best' friend at work it seems odd to confuse people who might value a few colleagues as close friends but not have a singular 'best' friend at work.

It's not great practice to use absolute type words in survey questions (like best, or always or never) unless you have a very good reason for doing so, and it can have substantial impacts on statistical properties and response biases.

3. It's not related to engagement or retention

More importantly, we don't see any evidence that this sort of question is related to engagement or retention measures. When a client wishes to ask this question, we have instead advised them to ask if people have a 'close' friend at work. This seems to match the intent of the question better anyway.

However, when we look at the relationship between this question and motivation, intent to stay, or whether people would recommend their workplaces, we find no relationship. That's right - zip (or as statisticians like to say: it's so close to zero that it's statistically indistinguishable from zero).

Alternative questions to understand relationships at work

If you really want to ask whether your workplace fosters close relationships, try asking these questions:

  • My manager encourages us to treat each other as friends
  • There is at least one person I can speak to openly and honestly here
  • I truly value the relationships I've developed here (or in my team)
  • I feel close enough to people here to feel comfortable

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