(CareerBuilder) -- Positive relationships at work are important on many levels, from encouraging teamwork to increasing one's chances of getting a promotion to simply making the workday more pleasant. But when the clock strikes five, should office socialization end?
"It all depends upon what you do and who you do it with," says Ed Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics in Albuquerque, N.M., and author of "Make Work Great" and "Four Secrets to Liking Your Work."
"Socializing with co-workers can be useful or damaging. The most important thing is that your socializing should serve to build -- not damage -- your reputation and relationships."
Kerry Patterson, co-author of The New York Times best-seller "Influencer," notes that people who are successful in their careers share a common quality: They're well-connected to a variety of people throughout the organization.
How do they get connected? "Much of what takes place in companies is done through the informal social network," Patterson says. "For instance, people solve important problems over lunch -- and if you work out at a health club alone, you find yourself out of the loop."
Some key reasons to socialize with co-workers include:
•Expanding your network
•Gaining insight into personalities
•Building your presence and likability
•Increasing feelings of togetherness and teamwork
•Gathering more knowledge about the company and its activities
•Forming genuine friendships
While relationships are undoubtedly affected by the structured activities of the day, it can be the side talks on the walk out the door, the brainstorming over coffee or the quick thought texted to a co-worker in the evening that lead to greater things.
"Informal, relaxed, often private, conversations strengthen bonds," Patterson says. "They can lead to trust and often provide opportunities to catch and solve problems early -- before they get out of control."
While out-of-office interactions may feel informal, they still reflect on the employee and influence how others see him. Watching what one says and does (and with whom) is vital.
"Comparing vacation experiences or swapping family stories over a beer can build trust and camaraderie. Drinking too much or trash-talking the boss behind his back, on the other hand, is destructive," Muzio says.
"It may get you a laugh in the moment, but it sends a signal that you're not to be trusted. You don't want your audience to silently muse, 'Funny stuff, but who is to stop you from trash-talking me the next time you've had too much and I'm not around to defend myself?'"
Aricia LaFrance, a career consultant and author of "Unlocking the Secrets of the Successful Career Seeker" warns that get-togethers where the primary purpose is to complain about work or commiserate about how awful your boss is are dangerous.
"If your co-worker complains along with you, you're likely not in a productive alliance. If [he] doesn't, you can get branded as difficult or negative. It's important to vent, but limit it and do it with friends outside of work whom you can trust."
Another factor to consider is with whom you are spending outside time. While occasionally grabbing an after-hours burger with an office pal is probably not going to raise eyebrows, interactions with management can be trickier.
"I always caution employees against fraternizing with the boss," says Debra Yergen, author of "Creating Job Security Resource Guide."
"You want to have a warm working relationship, but you don't want to put either party in a position of feeling embarrassed Monday morning for what happened Friday night. It helps everyone maintain a higher level of professionalism in the office when no one has done or said something they regret outside of the office."
It is common in some companies to encourage outside social events, often causing balance issues. The message -- subtle or not -- may be that if you want to get promoted, you "need to play golf on the weekend with the right people."
How can an employee keep his free time his own without damaging his career?
Patterson suggests looking for ways to interact casually during the business day.
"Much of what's needed to yield benefits from connecting with co-workers can be done during the commute or during work hours."
Possible opportunities for social interaction include:
•Riding the same train or bus as a fellow employee
•Walking together during a break
•Eating lunch together
Lastly, it also pays to trust your instincts about socializing. If your absence at a charity carnival your boss helped organize is likely to cause hurt feelings, it may be worth giving up a Saturday afternoon.
On the other hand, if you sign up for the company softball team even though you hate sports, you risk being labeled a sycophant.
For whether in the office or out, genuine interest is a basic building block of good relationships.
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