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Peer or colleague? Learn the difference for smoother sailing

July 29, 2022 - 14 min read

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What is a peer?

What is a colleague?

3 differences between peers vs. colleagues

4 similarities between peers and colleagues

3 examples of peers vs. colleagues

4 benefits of knowing the difference

Can your colleague also be your peer?

Your next move

At work, you might joke around with your coworkers, grab a drink at the end of the week, or even spend time together outside of the office. Some of the people you work with might even become your friends over time. Making new friends is always a good thing, but you need to remember the difference between peers vs. colleagues

Maybe you’re wondering, “are peers and colleagues the same thing?” The short answer is no. The way you interact with and speak to a peer vs. a colleague is very different. Understanding the distinction will help you stay professional and grow your career.

Let’s start by defining the terms so that you can learn who’s who in the workplace. 

 

What is a peer?

When we describe someone as a peer at work, we usually think about people who are at the same level as us in various ways. You could share similar skill sets, salaries, or job descriptions. These are the individuals who we likely collaborate with on a regular basis. 

A peer is a coworker who you might be friends with. Having peers that you eat lunch or talk about non-work topics with is great for your well-being. In fact, work friendships are shown to make you happier and ultimately even increase your productivity.

Liking the people you work with can also help you work better as a team. The benefits of teamwork are really limitless. To name just a few, working well with others leads to improved problem solving skills, less burnout, and more creativity.

How do you know who’s considered a peer, then? Here’s an example. If you’re a teacher at a public school, all the other teachers would be your peers. Even if some of the teachers have more experience, you’re all still basically at the same professional level. This means you can consider them your peers.

However, you probably wouldn’t say the same thing about the school’s administrative leaders. 

Having peers at work is great. You can learn new things from them, like strategies to teach math or organize your classroom better. You share a work environment, a job description, and educational background. These are the key factors that will tell you if someone is a peer vs. a colleague. 

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What is a colleague?

Reference some of your recent LinkedIn connections. Who are the people you know professionally but don’t speak to often or work with daily? These are probably your colleagues. 

A colleague is someone that you share a work environment with. You may work directly or indirectly with them — your colleague could be your manager, for example, or they could work in an entirely different department. 

Colleagues can also be the professional connections who work in your industry or professional field. This includes classmates who graduated in your college major that you still talk to today. You can also call people you meet at industry conferences and events your colleagues.

Let’s say you work for a magazine. The writers, editors, and graphic designers are all your colleagues. If you’re a writer, your editor is your colleague. You don’t do the same work or have the same skill sets. Your editor has different tasks and responsibilities. Your fellow writers, though, are your peers.

A colleague is similar to a coworker, but remember to use “coworker” rather than “colleague” when referring to all the people who work at your company. Again, a colleague can be anyone who shares your professional interests. “Coworker,” in contrast, usually refers to someone that specifically works in the same office as you. 

Colleagues are great because they can teach us a lot about our industry and career path. Whether you’re seeking a mentor or looking for feedback on a new idea, a colleague could be the right person to ask. 

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3 differences between peers vs. colleagues

Are you still wondering if colleagues and peers are the same? The definitions can be a little confusing, so here are three ways you can spot the differences:

1. Your job responsibilities

Think about what position you hold and where you work. Do you have different office environments, or share a workspace? Are they a member of your industry? 

If you’re an entry-level employee and they’re a senior executive with over a decade of experience, you’re probably looking at a colleague. Remember, your peers are people who share your status and skills.

2. Your incomes

The CEO and a sales associate don’t have the same income. One has to have a leadership mindset to guide the company while the other carries out smaller duties. However, they’re still colleagues. 

Peers have similar salaries because they have the same tasks to do. Since colleagues have different roles within the company, they earn different salaries.

3. Your skills

Take a moment to evaluate what skills you have compared to the other person. Colleagues have different job titles than you, so their skills are different. 

If you’re a server at a restaurant, for example, you don’t have the same skills as the line cooks. They would be your colleagues. But the other servers that know how to pour drinks, use the cash register, and take orders share skills with you, so they’re your peers.

You never know who might teach you something valuable. Stay open to new learning opportunities from people even if they don’t work directly with you. 

If you need extra support as you navigate work relationships, try BetterUp. We’re here to focus on helping you develop the skills you need to be confident at work and connect better with others.

4 similarities between peers and colleagues

Colleagues-Having-Lunch-peer-vs-colleague

Your peers and colleagues can seem quite different, but there are some things that are the same, too. 

Here are five similarities that peers and colleagues share:

  1. Both should always be learning new skills and different ways of working
  2. Both can share the same work environment
  3. Both people’s educational backgrounds can be similar, even if they’re from different departments
  4. Both have room to improve and grow within their companies

3 examples of peers vs. colleagues

In professional contexts, you may wonder when to use “colleague” or “coworker” and when to use “peer.” Knowing the difference can help you succeed.

Here are three examples of situations that can help you see the difference between peers vs. colleagues: 

  1. At a car dealership, you have administrative employees that handle scheduling and office work. You also have sales associates and mechanics. The sales associates and mechanics work for the same company, but they bring different skills to the dealership. They’re considered colleagues because of these differences. 
  2. Grocery store chains have a variety of team members and different departments. People work at the deli, bakery, cash registers, head office, and management roles. The people who work at the head office are the colleagues of those who work at the cash registers. There are plenty of colleagues within a large store because of all the different departments.
  3. Dentist offices have team members who might appear to be solely colleagues. Those who work as receptionists don’t have the education, training, income level, and responsibility of dental hygienists, for example. That means they’re colleagues. However, all the dental hygienists that work in the office would be considered peers.

4 benefits of knowing the difference

At work, it can be handy to know how to identify the differences between your peers vs. colleagues. You never know when you’ll be put on the spot or asked about it, so it’s good to be ready.

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Here are four situations where it’s crucial to differentiate between the two:

  1. When you’re describing your connection with someone during a job interview or casually with friends
  2. As you evaluate the competition, knowing what skills and qualifications they have can help you plan accordingly
  3. If you need to set boundaries with other team members at your work
  4. When you evaluate how you want to develop your career and want to look to others for inspiration

Can your colleague also be your peer?

While some people use these terms interchangeably, as we’ve explained, they do have separate meanings. 

Some work environments clarify that team members should respect seniority levels and specific responsibilities. Others might be comfortable with everyone referring to each other as peers. See what the other people at your company do before you go one way or the other. 

Business-Colleagues-In-The-Office-peer-vs-colleague

If you or your peer are promoted and move up within the company, you would shift to become colleagues. Luckily, if you develop a rapport separate from your working relationship, you can probably consider someone a friend, even if they’re outside of your department. 

Your next move

Understanding the difference between peers vs. colleagues isn’t just important for knowing how to interact at the office. You can also learn who to ask for help depending on their skill set, or find a mentor to help your career grow. 

Next time you’re unsure how to address or describe someone, try asking for clarity from your leader. Rather than get it wrong, asking the right questions shows an effort that people will appreciate. It might even create a conversation that builds a healthy working relationship in the future.

Find someone to help you build your communication skills and confidence when talking to people. BetterUp can provide the guidance you need to become your best self, both professionally and personally. 

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Published July 29, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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