Should HR avoid making friends at work?

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For HR professionals, making friends at work can be fraught with complexity, which is why it might be prudent to avoid happy hours after work and play it safe by keeping to yourself. After all, it can be hard to enjoy a drink with a colleague whose performance is under review or who is part of an ongoing HR investigation.

HR training expert Timothy Holden said when HR get too close to some staff they court allegations of discrimination and favouritism. Where harsh decisions – such as lay-offs – have had to be made, he has seen how personal friendships forged between the HR professional and the affected staff have precluded employers from acting fairly.

Clearly it’s harder for HR to discipline staff if they are friends and have personal knowledge of them, but, it can also be difficult for HR professionals to tread the fine line between collegiality and professionalism.

Another issue that can arise is perceived favouritism. If other staff feel they are being treated less favourably than those who are friendly with HR, it can have a negative impact on the work atmosphere. “Teamwork may become more difficult, grievances may be generated and bad behaviour may become the norm,” Holden said. “This could impact on absenteeism, staff turnover rates and customer service.”

Mitigate the risks:

  1. Be consistent and always act with integrity – never reveal confidential company information to your workplace friends, even if you feel that they would benefit from this knowledge
  2. Join professional networks to meet professionals from other organisations so that you can discuss and workshop work-related issues in a confidential environment with professional peers – or post discussion items on the HR Daily forum
  3. Establish ground rules and stick to them – explain to work friends from the outset that circumstances may arise in the future in which you will need to act in the best interests of the company
  4. Be transparent – always disclose potential conflicts of interests to your manager
  5. If you do attend after-work functions, avoid gossip and stay away from the punch bowl
  6. Choose your work friends wisely – at the very least, wait until your potential friends have passed their probation period
  • Kirsten on 7/11/2012 2:15:03 PM

    I don't agree that making friends at work is "fraught with complexity" for HR professionals. The statement that "Clearly it’s harder for HR to discipline staff if they are friends" is irrelevant for HR professionals who work as true business partners. Our role is not to "discipline" staff ourselves, it is to provide advice and guidance to managers on how THEY can effectively approach and manage poor performance in their team members. I have assisted in many disciplinary meetings where, because I was friendly with the employee, it helped the process run smoothly as the employee trusted me and knew I would ensure they were treated fairly.

  • Debbie on 8/11/2012 8:54:57 AM

    I disagree with this too. Our previous HR Manager did not socialise with staff (in or out of hours) and was seen as unapproachable to the point that managers and staff stopped asking her for assistance or support. I am now in this role and due to my friendship with staff they are confident that I will hear them out and use my discretion when necessary without any expectation of favouritism.

  • Ann on 8/11/2012 3:17:38 PM

    I have been in both situations. It depends on the organisatisn and the individuals. I have hired and fired family members and my closest friend is someone i met "on the job" in my first HR role.I have also been accused of an affair and favoritism.
    I wont stop beng friends and socialising with people i work with, but i am definately careful about which events and with which people.
    At the end of the day, it (should) all come down to your own intergrity and abilities to manage within the role you are hired to do

  • Mark on 8/11/2012 3:24:30 PM

    Of the same opinion, I think one must be conscious that a fine line does exist, but the ability to build trust and buy-in by being “friendly” will help you in leaps and bounds. I have benefited greatly from forging solid relationships with my employee group, that has helped drive a great deal of performance improvement by working with managers to ensure they do it right. Thus by default when employees learn I am involved or supporting the process they are more inclined to play ball. The fine line is up to the individual and their working style to define.

  • Megan on 8/11/2012 9:31:05 PM

    I also disagree with this to a point. As a HR professional in past roles by attending work social functions and after work drinks it has given employees the sense that HR is part of the 'team' and encouraged them to approach HR if they have any issues or questions. Additionally many employees feel more at ease in social work situations as such are often more likely to approach HR staff at these social functions rather than in the workplace.
    Having said this, as a HR professional it is important to maintain professionalism at social work functions to maintain integrity through being aware of the risks as outlined in this article.

  • Anonymous123 on 3/12/2013 9:37:58 AM

    I unfortunately am the only HR person at my company so I cannot avoid becoming friends with colleagues. I've been told by many employees that I am approachable and friendly and because of that employees trust me. I always tell them I assume you're talking to me as a friend first (unless there's never been any friendly conversation before) because they feel less pressure when talking to me.

  • Paul on 31/12/2013 11:44:21 AM

    I was a relieving Manager in a HR office and I also disagree you shouldn't forge friendships. Some of my best friends are people I work with and I think it has a positive impact on morale and increasing performance. It does definitely depend on the people involved and the overall work environment. I think consistency in your management of staff is the key and yes it can be tougher for the HR person to correct behaviours with their friends but if you can separate the work from the personal it is a wonderful thing to work right alongside your friends.

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