Frequently over the last two weeks the topic of ‘HR and friends in the workplace’ has popped up in conversation. I have mixed feelings on this topic, but after the 2nd time it came up I decided to shut up and listen to what others had to say. Most professionals are feeding me a line that you can separate your work relationship from your friendship and while I hope this is true, I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s always that easy. I found some people who work in HR and have friends at their work place (or have had friends at their work place while they were in an HR role). Here are some of the things I heard:
Everything was always pretty much fine until she was nearing the end of her employment with us and she suddenly had a sexual harassment complaint. As her friend I felt like she probably was not harassed and because of that I was able to recognize and explain to her that if she wanted to file her complaint officially she needed to talk to someone else in the HR department.
This scenario is tricky because for a personality type like mine I’d be 100% one way or the other… I’d either be team “you’re-overreacting” or I’d be team “lets-beat-him-down-knock-out-all-of-his-teeth-and-tie-him-to-a-tree” (we are woman hear us roar). The HR side of me would take this very serious and start the formal process immediately. How about your friend? Does your friend even realize what position they have just put you in, especially if they are just venting and over stating a situation only to come back later and respond with “oh they weren’t harassing me”. It can happen folks, it. can. happen.
In another conversation I approached an HR pro that has two or three very close friends that work outside of the HR department for her company. It went a little something like this:
Me: How do you feel about HR having friends at work?
Her: I used to have friends in the HR department, but they did me kind of shady so I prefer to have closer friends outside of the department.
Me: Do they ever fish for information they know you have?
Her: Sometimes. One respects that I have that boundary, at least one of them is questionable in that aspect and one of them has a degree in HR so I think she gets it, even though she does different work. The harder part is if one of them complains about an employee or their manager and I have to decide whether I’m friend first or HR first.
Me: Who do you talk about your day with?
Her: No one.
The cool thing about my HR friends is that we swap stories. Sometimes it’s how we reacted to an OFCCP letter, sometimes it’s how we reacted to the S.W.A.T. team jumping off our employers building, hunting an employee down, while we were big-months pregnant, but a lot of times it’s about something off the wall an employee did or said. You know who we can’t have those conversations with? Other people who work at the company and don’t have the same obligations of confidentiality. I can’t imagine not having anyone to swap these crazy stories with. The other thing that stood out to me about our conversation was that she preferred her close friends in the company outside of the HR department vs. inside the HR department. My instinct is to be friends with the HR department over outside of the HR department, generally speaking.
It would be cool if we all had grown-up-like friendships where we could say “while I’m here, I’m HR, please understand that and I’ll understand your role”, but there are these sneaky little things called human emotions and sometimes those human emotions impair our judgment. I’ve often heard the response from the HR pro in the scenario that “I would choose not to be involved in their disciplinary action,” it’s not always a disciplinary action that makes that relationship awkward! These emotions could be in response to a policy that HR is in charge of, the termination of a co-worker that your friend liked, your friend being overlooked for a promotion or pay increase, not hiring a referral your friend gave you, so on and so on. So I ask you, fellow HR pros, can you have friends in the workplace? How do you maintain those friendships? Which comes first HR duties or friend duties?