Should HR have close friendships at work?

by Nicola Middlemiss13 Nov 2015
A recent survey showed that colleagues are the number one thing most people love about their job but could forming meaningful friendships with co-workers end in disaster for HR?

One VP told HC that industry professionals should be wary of the message they might be sending to the entire workforce if they’re forming a close friendship with just a few employees.

“I think because of what we know and the information that we have access to, the deeper we’re perceived to have friendships in an organisation, the tougher that becomes with respect to how our decisions are questioned,” says Halogen Software’s VP of HR Dominique Jones.

“It’s difficult to maintain a level of neutrality around decision-making if it could even be vaguely perceived as favouritism,” she adds.

“I’ve been in organisations where there have been some cliques of various different employees where I’ve actually had to have some challenging conversations with executives around the optics of that because even though you might not be talking about work in your personal time, people think that you are,” reveals Jones.

By undermining HR’s position as a neutral party, professionals could also be damaging their credibility, warns Jones.

“The expectation of HR is that we’re neutral, balancing the needs of both the organisation and the employee – I think you start to lose that balance and the ability to see that balance if you’re clouded by personal relationships,” she says.

It’s an issue that Jones says goes beyond current employees and must be considered with potential employees too.

“I’ve thought that about referring people into the organisation – there are lots of people that I’ve worked with in the past who I think would be fantastic – but then you have to consider what the perception of that will be,” she told HC.

While Jones suggests avoiding close friendships in the workplace, she stresses HR professionals should still strive to show their human side and form bonds with their employees.

“My team would know what my family circumstances are and that I’ve got certain commitments and we have jokes about our difficult parents and things like that but I don’t see work colleagues over the weekend and I have chosen throughout my career to keep the two things completely separate,” reveals Jones.

“There’s a certain integrity in showing that you’re human, showing that you’re not so far removed and you’re not so professional that things don’t impact you or  affect you,” she adds, “and it can help you build connections with people in your team.”

Also, just because HR professionals would be best avoiding deep friendships, doesn’t mean they can’t have fun.

“There’s no reason why you as an HR professional you can’t let your hair down,” stressed Jones, who despite being a self-confessed introvert, has willingly participated in the office’s regular lip-syncing battles.

“Don’t be afraid to make a bit of a fool of yourself in the spirit of fun, in the spirit of driving collaboration,” she advises. “You actually gain respect that way.”


  • by David 13/11/2015 11:33:19 AM

    While I acknowledge some of the risks of forming close friendships at work that are identified in this article, but the suggested solution – of not forming them – seems ridiculous. What if the friendship is pre-existing? Should you shun your friend because you're working together.

    It makes much more sense to be conscious of the possible perceptions and simply conduct yourself professionally at work and keep the friendship side outside work. Where there's a real conflict (e.g. you're assessing pay rises for people and your "friends" are in there among others), you should disclose this and have others (senior management or external advisers) either make the decision or review yours for equity. Bending over backwards to avoid the perception of a conflict can be used to conceal a real conflict. Better to keep them right out in the open and address them appropriately.

    HR is no different from any other role that has knowledge and power in an organisation. People of integrity will conduct themselves properly, recognise real and perceived conflicts and ensure they're avoided. Those who lack integrity (Robert Sutton's "Assholes") will exploit their knowledge and power for themselves and their friends. Put your energy into getting rid of these people and keeping them out. Or if your company is full of them, move on.

  • by David S. 13/11/2015 12:47:44 PM

    David I couldn't agree more with your comments and points raised. Let's put the human back in human resources. Absolutely be mindful and conscious to conduct ourselves professionally and set a good example & benchmark of appropriate workplace behaviour but also remember to be genuinely authentic both to yourself and those around you. I personally choose not to utilise and maintain friendships on Facebook with people of the organisation I work with, even if we are friends outside of the workplace. It's not that I have anything to hide, it’s just one of those judgement calls I've chosen to make that I feel comfortable with.

  • by Steve 13/11/2015 1:23:06 PM

    Whilst I support the thrust of what both Davids are saying, my actual experience as a HR team leader is somewhat different. In at least 2 organisations where I have worked as HR Manager, there were HR professionals in my team who had developed personal, out-of-work friendships with colleagues from different parts of the business. On each of these occasions, issues arose in the workplace such that my team member was not able to do their job properly due to the friendship they had with their colleague. As a result, in each case another HR team member had to be called in to respond - a situation which added complexity and made management more difficult.

    My experience has led me to believe it is better to not form out-of-work friendships with colleagues. When it comes to the workplace, I try to adhere to the adage "I am friendly, but not a friend".

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