What is the difference between "co-worker" and "colleague"?

  1. In my company there is an employee whose name is Bob. But Bob and I, we don't know each other. In this case, is Bob my "co-worker" or "colleague" or both?
  2. In my team at work, there is Alice and we know each other and work together. Then is Alice my "co-worker" or "colleague" or both?

9 Answers 9


I'd say that every co-worker is a colleague, but not every colleague is a co-worker.

The usage depends on context. Within a company, my co-workers would be the people on my team (and likely, people that do a similar job to mine).

When talking to friends about my job, I could refer to all people at the company as my co-workers.

Colleague either is someone you work with in the same team, department or company (again, depending on context) but it can also be someone who works in the same industry or who has a similar job.

The prime minister met his European colleagues at the summit this Wednesday.

In this case, he met prime ministers from European countries. Not people he works with in the same team or office or government.

In that context, the words counterpart is sometimes used when we refer to a specific colleague:

The British prime minister met with his German counterpart on Friday.

Again, these two are not co-workers, but the are colleagues.

If I send out an e-mail within my company to invite you to have a drink with your colleagues, I mean your co-workers; people that work at the same company, maybe even ones in different jobs.

If I create a facebook page where, say, Java programmers can meet their colleagues, it means people that all share the same (kind of) job, not co-workers.

  • 7
    I disagree with your initial statement that every co-worker is a colleague. I'm a medical professional; my receptionist is a co-worker of mine, but she is not my colleague. Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:08
  • 4
    @Codeswitcher: I'm in IT, but if my company organizes and event were I can socialize with my colleagues, I expect the receptionist to be there as well. Maybe usage differs geographically?
    – oerkelens
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 7:36
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    Might. But I have to ask: if you ran into your receptionist at the grocery store, and were chatting, and a third party you know walks up, would you introduce your receptionist, "This is my colleague, so and so?" You could, of course, but would you? Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 6:20
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    @Codeswitcher: yes, actually, the word colleague seems to come more natural in that situation than co-worker. For me, co-worker somehow implies a closer relation, implying I'm working directly with that receptionist. But I'm sure YMMV on this one :)
    – oerkelens
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 7:25
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    I agree with @Codeswitcher; colleague implies that they work at your level, and not necessarily at the same place. Co-worker just means that the same organization pays you both. Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 17:37

Colleague implies same level or type of job

In contrast to other answers that describe colleague as more general (because it applies also to similar positions in other companies), I perceive that there's a different aspect where co-worker is more general. Namely, different levels or types of jobs - if you're working as, say, a designer in company, then the company's CFO and janitor are your co-workers but describing them your colleagues can be done, but is a bit misleading.

  • 1
    Nah, as I've observed in many places, you can't call the janitor co-worker, as the wrong meaning is implied. On the other hand, it's reported (literally) that a designer in the US can know a designer in Europe a colleague.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 17:26

Nice question. As the differences are highly subtle, many consider them the same and thus, you really would need some context to decide which is which.

Co-: 1. together; joint or jointly; mutual or mutually: coproduction Dictionary.reference

Co-worker, I suppose, is the person who is working with you. S\he could be your assistant, or your "complement".

Imagine that you're the head of the team that's responsible for building the design of the graduated ELL. You may be the manager, who supervises other people's codes. You have a friend that's the guy who's going to design the logo and the main page. That guy is your co-worker.

colleague: 1. a fellow worker or member of a staff, department, profession, etc. Dictionary.reference

It seems that there was a "need" for such word, and these two are of various roots. However, with time passage, "colleague" has become more general.

The guy who's designing the logo and the main page in a team in which you're the manager is as well your colleague. A designer in the opposite side of the world is considered to be your colleague too, in some references. In this case, context decides to what degree "colleague" is general, but we know one thing: It's more general than "co-worker".

You can think of the relation between the two words as this:

Any solution is a mixture, but not all mixtures are solutions.

  • 1
    I'm not allowed to solve all problems with mixtures though. Even if they do need a solution.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 13:34
  • I thought it would look really nerdy if I made use of "homogeneous physical solutions", but I see now things are ambiguous now. I did not mean the solution to a problem! :)
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 13:38
  • What's wrong with nerdy? :)
    – oerkelens
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 13:52
  • It wouldn't make a proverb or anything. I'm trying to explain it to the guy, not mix him up! (literally) :D
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 13:59

A co-worker is someone who happens to work for the same employer as you do. No other connection is implied.

A colleague is someone with whom you have a working relationship irrespective of employer. As others have pointed out, heads of state at a G8 summit are colleagues even though they certainly work for different countries. They do, one hopes, work together to achieve common goals. That's what makes them colleagues.

The adjective, collegial, which comes from the same root, implies a degree of camaraderie. Hope this helps.

  • Thanks. so, when I call someone works in my company as co-worker, cooperation or knowing each other doesn't matter. Right? I guessed that co means cooperation.
    – Jason Heo
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 2:26

It seems to me that a colleague is a person who shares a same degree...MD, LMFT, Teacher, Professor, Engineer, Nurse. Whether they work with you or not....example Professors of psychology are continuating their research and thus all professors of psycholgy have a current specialty in common. All people you work with are co workers but not all are colleagues.


A co-worker is one who works in the same workplace, paid by the same employer; a colleague is someone doing a similar job. But there has recently been an upsurge particularly in shops and supermarkets of signage such as "ask a colleague for help" or on doors "Colleagues only", referring to "staff". These are signs aimed at customers, who are surely NOT colleagues of the staff. Evolution of the English language?


I agree with those who've said that co-worker is more general. As a teacher, I would refer to other teachers as my colleagues, but custodial staff, security, etc. as co-workers.

Interestingly, I would not refer to our principal as a colleague OR a co-worker, as neither seems to be a good fit.


I work in a hospital and a part of the administrative team. I consider that team my colleagues, because we are of the same rank. Everyone else is a co-worker. My colleagues would also be other administrative personnel in other industries. We are on the same level. That is the true definition. I hear people say everyone is their colleague but that is incorrect.

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    Editing to add some citations for this would be nice. Commented Aug 29, 2015 at 17:12

A co-worker is anyone who may work in and for the same company but has a different scope of work than what specific degreed colleagues would have assigned to them. In that sense, a co-worker would be dissimilar to a colleague.

However, once the co-worker is asked to facilitate the colleague in the production of an end result to any given task then he/she becomes a colleague for the duration of the assigned project. It is not the person who makes for a co-worker or a colleague but the entire team assigned to a specific task.

An example of this would be a surgical team where Doctors and Nurses all together assist the patient's medical outcome. At the point they are all working towards the same outcome then they are all colleagues. This notion can and should be applied to all company, medical, educational etc. pursuits for the beginning to end time of which they are working on the same outcome as a team to accomplish results of the same spectrum.

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