Colleague vs Coworker: What’s the Difference?

Young female executive discusses work with a colleague as their coworkers sit in the background in an office

Colleague vs Coworker… It sounds like the headline for a professional wrestling match!

But, we’re not speaking about two words in conflict. They have a lot in common, which is why many people mix up these two words.

They’re important in business and professional settings, so read closely. Or you might confuse one of your colleagues or coworkers at the next conference.

In this article, we’ll eliminate the confusion, explain the differences, and show you how to correctly use the terms colleague and coworker.

What Is a Colleague?

Colleague is a French term (collègue) that means: A person you work with in a profession or business.

At face value, it seems like everyone who works in the same profession or at the same place of business are colleagues. But that’s not how we use the term.

The base of colleague is the Latin term collega, which means a partner or partner in office

So, is your boss a colleague? 

Typically no, but there are exceptions. In modern workplaces, some bosses take more of a hands-on approach and work directly with their teams. However, be very careful with the term. Most bosses do not consider themselves colleagues with their subordinates.

For the best example, let’s look at a school. The teachers who work together at the school are colleagues. They all work together on the same project of educating students. Often, they work directly with each other.

In addition, they are also colleagues with other teachers at other schools. Everyone works in the same profession and has a similar rank.

They are not colleagues with their principal or headmaster. A teacher and a principal are not equal in rank within the school. Also, they have different jobs (or different responsibilities and/or professions). The principal’s colleagues are other principals or headmasters.

Colleague in a Sentence:

  • At dinner, I spoke with my work colleague about the issues we faced on a day-to-day basis.
  • I’d like to introduce you to my friend Leslie. We were work colleagues in the sales department for nearly twenty years.

What Is a Coworker?

Coworker is an English term that adds the Latin suffix co-, which means together, to the term worker. Therefore, a coworker is someone you work with.

Everyone who works together at the same place of business is a coworker regardless of their level. 

Is my boss my coworker? Yes! You work with your boss on many of the same jobs and maybe even side-by-side on some projects. In fact, some jobs require that you work directly with your boss throughout the day.

Does that mean everyone who works for the business or company (or in the building) is my coworker? Yes, as a general statement, all employees of any department are coworkers.

For example, if you work as a sales representative. Members of the IT team are also your coworkers. Both teams are employed by the same company. And you’re both working together on the same goal of making the company successful. 

You may have never even communicated with some of your coworkers if the company or office is large.

Coworker in a Sentence:

  • My coworkers and I went out for drinks last night.
  • Last night, I met some of my coworkers for the first time because they work in another department.

What Is the Difference?

Now that we have defined both terms, let’s look at their key differences.

  • Colleagues work with each other on similar projects and in the same profession.
  • Coworkers work for the same company, but don’t necessarily work on the same projects or even in the same department. The employees in the sales department and in the IT department of the same company are coworkers.
  • Colleagues are typically equal in stature or rank (but not always).
  • A coworker can be above or below you in rank, but they are still your coworker.

Conclusion

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of colleague vs coworker. Remember, the English language is always evolving, you may hear the term colleague used in different ways based on the environment. 

The best rule is to call everyone you work with directly a colleague and let everyone else be a coworker.

As always, for all things English grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary and business English, visit the Magoosh English Speaking Blog!

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