Colleague Vs. Coworker

By Abby McCain
Aug. 14, 2022

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As you go about your professional life talking to people around your office, reading emails, or engaging in networking events, you’ll likely hear the terms “colleague” and “coworker” thrown around somewhat interchangeably.

When it comes time for you to use these terms, though, how do you know which one to use? Does it matter? Keep reading to find out the differences between these two terms and why it’s important to know them.

Key Takeaways:

  • A colleague is a person you work with who is in a similar role and career path.

  • A coworker is simply someone who works at the same company as you do.

  • Most of the time the difference doesn’t matter except when you are formally introducing someone at an event, writing a professional document, or getting to know the people you work with.

Colleague vs. Coworker

The Difference Between Colleagues and Coworkers

While the two words are similar and can often be used interchangeably in casual conversation with few consequences, there are a few subtle differences between them. It’s important to know those differences so that you don’t accidentally embarrass yourself or someone else and so that you can communicate more effectively.

  1. What is a colleague?

    A colleague is a person you work with who is in a similar role and career path. For example, if you’re an interior designer, the other interior designers at the company that are on the same or similar levels as you are your colleagues.

    A colleague doesn’t necessarily have to work at the same company as you do either. For example, interior designers at other companies at a similar place in their careers are also your colleagues.

  2. What is a coworker?

    On the other hand, a coworker is simply someone who works at the same company as you do. This could include your boss, your subordinate, your team member, the janitor, or the HR representative.

    Since you all work at the same company, you’re all coworkers. You may work with them on projects all the time, or you might not ever work together or even meet, but you’re coworkers just the same.

    Your coworkers also work in similar disciplines in the same company that you do but are at a different level. Your boss, for instance, is your coworker because your job is at a different level than his and hers.

    These terms can overlap because your colleagues are also your coworkers, but all of your coworkers aren’t necessarily colleagues. Just remember: Colleagues are the same level as you; coworkers aren’t. They just get paid by the same organization that you do.

Examples of Colleagues vs. Coworkers

To help illustrate the differences between colleagues and coworkers, here are some examples of how these terms play out in real-world work situations.

  1. Medicine

    Colleague: If you’re a doctor, most of the other doctors you work with within your hospital or office would be considered your colleagues because you’re on similar career paths, you’re at similar points on those paths, and you work together regularly.

    The same would go for doctors, especially those of the same specialty, who work at other health care facilities. You may not work together daily, but you are generally of equal professional standing and occasionally discuss cases and work together because of that.

    Coworker: The residents who work for the same employer that you do, on the other hand, are your coworkers because while they are doctors and you do work with them, you’re their superior. This is true even if you aren’t directly in charge of supervising them.

    Similarly, nurses would be your coworkers, not because they’re your subordinates or you’re theirs, but because they fulfill an entirely different role in the organization. The same goes for all other staff members at the hospital or office where you work.

  2. Marketing

    You’ll likely have some content writers, some graphic designers, and some social media managers on a marketing team. Now, the lines between colleagues and coworkers can get a little fuzzy here since many times, these roles all work together on the same projects.

    However, generally speaking, the writers, for example, would call each other colleagues and the graphic designers and social media managers coworkers. This could vary depending on your particular team, but technically, since the content writers can’t necessarily talk about content writing with the graphic designers, they aren’t colleagues.

    Even if they work together on a project, they’re both handling different parts of that project with their own expertise, making them coworkers.

  3. Education

    Colleague: Say you’re a math teacher who works at a high school. The other teachers at the school would be your colleagues, whether they also teach math or not. Even if they don’t teach the same subject you do, you are all equals and are all teachers, so you can work together to become better teachers.

    Remember that your colleagues don’t necessarily have to work the same place you do, though. If you’re a university professor who teaches English and you study, work, or discuss your field of interest with other English professors at different universities, they’re considered your colleagues, even though you aren’t employed by the same organization.

    Coworker: The basketball coach, principal, and office workers, on the other hand, are your coworkers. Again, not all of these positions are at a different level than yours, but they all have entirely different jobs and expertise. So even if you work with them regularly, they still aren’t technically your colleagues.

  4. Management

    Colleague: Your colleagues in this instance would be the other managers in the company, whether they work in the same discipline or not. You may not be able to talk accounting or sales with them, but you can talk about management, and you’re all on the same level, which makes them your colleagues.

    Coworker: If you’re leading a team or managing a department, even though you work with the team members or department regularly, they are technically your subordinates, making them your coworkers, not your colleagues.

    On the other hand, your CEO is not your colleague but your coworker because they are above you in the company hierarchy.

Why The Difference Matters

Now, you may be thinking, what does it matter if I call a coworker a colleague or vice versa? As we said earlier, it generally won’t matter in casual conversation, but when you’re trying to properly introduce someone or describe their particular role, knowing the differences between the two words can be helpful.

Here are some examples of when this might come in handy:

  1. When you need to formally introduce someone at a professional event. If you’re at a networking event, conference, or even an interview and you need to introduce two people or explain how you know someone, knowing the difference between a colleague and a coworker can save you a lot of explaining and others a lot of confusion.

    Again, unless you’re in an extremely formal environment, it’s likely no one is going to judge you if you use the wrong term, but describing your colleague as a colleague gives a much clearer impression of who they are than if you simply said they were your coworker.

    If you did that, then you’d have to paint the rest of the picture by describing what they do. On the other hand, if you use the word colleague, the person you were speaking to would understand that you have similar jobs and can continue the conversation accordingly.

  2. When you’re writing professional documents. If you have to write employee handbooks, office policies, HR reports, or even simple emails, knowing the difference between the words colleague and coworker could be invaluable.

    When you’re writing anything that will be read and interpreted by someone else, it’s important to know both the definitions and connotations for words to ensure that your message is clear.

    Understanding connotations is important because while two words may have similar dictionary definitions, they can often have different implied meanings.

    For example, if your boss tends to emphasize details, you could describe them as meticulous, which has a positive connotation, or picky, which has a negative one.

    The terms coworker and colleague can quickly fall into that same category. While one isn’t more positive or negative than the other, they portray different relationships, which could be vital to effective communication.

  3. When you’re getting to know the people you work with. Suppose you’re starting a new job and your supervisor introduces someone to you as their colleague. In that case, you’ll know that they have the same authority and deserve the same respect that your supervisor does, even though they might not have any direct authority over you.

    Understanding what your supervisor is saying by introducing the person to you in that manner makes it easier to make and keep a good first impression because you won’t be stepping out of bounds when speaking to the person.

    If your supervisor introduces someone as your colleague, though, you’ll immediately know that you’re considered to be equals within the company. This can allow for much more casual and open interaction since you’ll both know that you’re on equal footing and will likely be working together a lot.

    This also lets you know that this is someone you can go to if you have questions or need advice, which is also valuable information at a new job.

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Abby McCain

Abby is a writer who is passionate about the power of story. Whether it’s communicating complicated topics in a clear way or helping readers connect with another person or place from the comfort of their couch. Abby attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she earned a degree in writing with concentrations in journalism and business.

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Topics: Formulas, Glossary