Colleague vs coworker —Why you need to know the difference!

Do you get confused when to use colleague vs coworker in your daily environment? Here’s exactly what the difference is, why you need to know the difference, and includes examples.

The terms colleague and coworkers look very similar. Many people often use them interchangeably, including me. 

While there are lots of similarities between the two, there are some differences. Generally, both coworkers and colleagues refer to people you work with. All your colleagues are your coworkers, but not all your coworkers are your colleague.

If that sounds confusing, let’s dive in to be sure that you use the words correctly going forward.

What is a colleague?

The term colleague comes from the French word collègue that means a person you work with within your profession or business. The term typically refers to people you work with in the same rank or job group.

For you to refer to someone as your colleague, they usually are your equal. For instance, if you are a teacher, all the other teachers are your colleagues. But you won’t refer to the principal as your colleague.

Nowadays, the term colleague is also used to refer to people in the same profession but in another company. Coming back to the teaching example, if you teach in school X, another teacher at school Y is your colleague.

What is a coworker?

A coworker includes all people you work with in the same organization. While you work for the same organization as your coworker, you don’t need to have the same rank. Everyone at the company is working towards the same goal, but your work doesn’t affect them, and neither is your work affected by them.

So, is your boss your coworker? The answer is yes. All the employees of the organization are your coworkers. For instance, if you work as an accountant, the cleaner is also your coworker.

There are some coworkers you may never meet or communicate with if you work in a large organization.

Coworker vs. Coworking

Besides the word traditional definition of the word coworker, the digital era has given another meaning. A coworker can also be defined as a person who is coworking with others.

Coworking is a fast-growing trend that means people share office spaces where there is a form of social contact while working independently. A coworking space is a work environment that you share with like-minded people.

Instead of getting your own workspace, you share office resources like the internet, printers, meeting rooms, and much more. You can have a chat at the coffee machine and inspire each other. 

Modern coworking spaces range from a coffee shop with office supplies to a dedicated office space to rent your own desk.

Coworking allows you to meet like-minded people. Plus, many people experience increased productivity when they work in the same space as others. 

Whether you are a freelancer, a remote worker, a digital nomad, or a solopreneur, a coworking space will provide you the friends and office connections you may be missing while working from home or traveling the world.

What’s the difference between a colleague vs a coworker?

Now that we know what a colleague and a coworker are, we want to know exactly how they are different. Here are the main differences between a colleague and a coworker:

  • You share the same tasks with your colleagues. However, your coworkers may have entirely different tasks.
  • While you work for the same organization as your coworkers, you don’t necessarily work in the same position. On the other hand, you work in the same rank as your colleagues.
  • You probably know your colleagues better, since you work with them regularly. Your coworkers may be from another department or an entirely different branch, and the chances are that you have never met them before.
  • A colleague may be working in a different company but in the same position. To call someone your coworker, you have to be working in the same company.

Colleague vs coworker – why you need to know the difference

It’s important to understand the difference between a colleague and a coworker. You want to prevent a situation where you refer to your boss as your colleague, for example. While that wouldn’t be such an issue in modern companies, it could be an issue at typical corporate companies that value the traditional roles. 

Understanding the difference between your coworkers and your colleagues can also help to build relationships at work. When you know the difference between colleagues and coworkers, you know how to interact with them. For example, you will often find that you are closer to your colleagues than your coworkers.

You can laugh with your colleagues and have casual conversations with them. However, with some coworkers, you feel like you should watch what you’re saying, depending on your relationship with them.  

Also, by understanding who your colleagues are, you will know who you will work with on specific projects and clients. You know who you need to approach for what task, which will make your work easier. 

Examples of coworkers vs. colleagues

Here are some general examples of colleagues and coworkers in different fields to give you an impression of the difference between your colleague and your co-worker.

1. Journalism

If you work as a journalist, your colleague might be a fellow journalist or an editor of the story you are reporting on. These are the people who help you cover the story or edit it and the people you work with directly. 

A co-worker can be the driver who takes you home after the long hours in the newsroom, someone working at the helpdesk, or the people working in the cafeteria.

2. Law

If you are a lawyer, your colleague is someone you work with in the same case. They probably help you in research or to exchange ideas on how best to approach the case. It could be a lawyer within your law firm or from another law firm. 

The person who helps fix your IT issues is your coworker, and so is the accountant. The only common denominator with the accountant and the IT professional is that you work for the same law firm. But that where it ends, and your duties and their duties don’t rhyme.

3. Sales

If you work in the sales departments, your colleagues are the people in your sales team. You collaborate with them and are working toward a shared goal for the entire team. 

A coworker could be someone who works in the customer service department. While your role is to bring in more customers, the customer service representative’s role is to handle the current customers’ issues. 

While it may seem that two positions overlap, the role of you and your time is to bring in more customers. The customer service staff’s role is to maintain the current customers by handling all their complaints, concerns, and feedback.

4. Design

When working as a designer, a colleague is another designer. Your role may be to create logos for your clients, design websites, or apps. 

A coworker may be a creative who writes the ads. Similarly, the accountant may be a coworker. You only meet with him in the staff meeting. If there are other designers in the company who work in different departments, these will be your colleague. Designers who work in other companies are also your colleague.

5. Doctor

If you work as a doctor, your colleagues are the people you work with within the health profession. They could be fellow doctors or nurses, even when they work in another institution. 

On the other hand, your coworkers could be any supporting staff that works in the same institution. Examples include cleaners, HR, the finance department, and the people working at the reception. You’re working at the same organization and doing different jobs, so you’re coworkers. 

6. Software development

Suppose you are a back-end developer or a coder. In that case, a front-end developer may be your colleague. Both of you work on the same project. 

Let’s say you work for an advertising agency. The copywriter and SEO staff are your coworkers. While you may be working in the same office, your roles differ, and you will rarely come in contact with each other.

7. Remote work

If you work as a remote worker, all the people who work remotely are your coworkers, no matter where they may be working from.

The people you work within the same role are your colleagues, even if they work in other companies. Remote workers often meet their colleagues on industry forums, networking events, and coworking spots.

8. Freelancer

As a freelancer, do you have coworkers? No, you don’t, as you are a solopreneur.

If you are working directly with a team on a particular project, you might consider team members to be your colleagues, depending on the role you have. 

Your colleague as a freelancer may include other freelancers working in the same role. It means you have a lot of colleagues as a freelancer!

Conclusion: Colleague vs coworker

You now have a better understanding of the difference between colleague vs coworker. Knowing the difference can prevent awkward situations if you work in a more traditional company. Besides, knowing the difference makes it clear who you can have more informal conversations with. 

Remember that the English language keeps changing and evolving. Many people use the two terms interchangeably.

If you find yourself confusing the two words, the rule of thumb is to call all the people you work with as your coworkers. It is widely accepted and will prevent any confusion or conflict.