HR and Workplace Friendships – To Be Or Not To Be

For all “dedicated” HR practitioners, it doesn’t matter whether it was a conscious decision to practice HR or if it was by happenstance, one thing holds, we love what we do because it allows us to make people’s working lives better, albeit in small ways.

The HR practice allows us to be caregivers to the people in our respective organizations and we are also given the chance daily to create purposeful and enduring relationships, live our passions and impact the lives of a few and the many.

Now, this is the conundrum, one of the reasons we love working in HR is because we love helping people and solving their problems, the question is “why then do we find it difficult to make meaningful and true friendships at work outside of the HR team?

I read somewhere a long while ago that “HR people like to hang out with other HR people.” This holds mostly true because many of my friends, at least ones I met post-University, work in HR. 

For us as HR professionals, workplace friendships can be delicate. Are we supposed to have friends at work? 

Most of us tend to feel isolated from the larger organization from time to time, but we are skeptical about making friends because it might raise issues around objectivity and fair play. 

While HR is about people, it is even so the practice of ethical behaviours, a condition that requires us to maintain confidentiality and avoid bias. 

Several blogs and articles have raised the question of whether HR professionals should have workplace friendships. Their answers fall into four general categories:

A. YES 

(Breaking the (HR) Rules: Making Friends at Work from Upstart HR; Can HR Make Friends at Work? from Blogging4Jobs)

B. YES, WITH CAUTION 

(Should HR Avoid Making Friends at Work? from HC Online; The Lonely HR Manager from HR Payroll Systems; Can HR have FRIENDs at Workplace? from Young HR Manager)

C. PROBABLY NOT 

(The Perils of Close Work Friendships When You’re in HR from Ask a Manager; As an HR executive can you make friends at work from Quora)

D. WHO KNOWS? 

(Should HR Have Friendships with Employees from Workforce) 

Most of the articles lean toward “YES, WITH CAUTION,” but some convincingly argue “NO.” 

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Here is what I think. The HR function is primarily “human” by definition and not isolated. Therefore, when working through the myriad of HR people-related issues, it is inevitable not to touch on several personal points that concern employees and therefore, it can be hard to avoid a more personal relationship with employees who confide in us. 

Hence, as HR professionals we are not allowed to isolate ourselves from the larger organization, because it is our level of involvement with the people, mostly at individual levels that enable us to build “trust” with them. Therefore, it is imperative that we are aware of the boundaries that separate HR from any other form of employee friendship.

There MUST always be a balance between professionalism and friendliness.

A colleague outside of HR once told me he would never risk a personal friendship with an HR person. Since our primary responsibility is “protecting the company”, and that employees are skeptical to tell us anything for fear of impacting their careers negatively. 

In his words “When people’s paychecks are on the line, they will do almost anything to self-protect – especially HR people.” 

Now, with most employees already having such “hang-ups” about HR people, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to develop healthy and cordial relationships at work. 

I am of the view that HR does not and should not have a secret code of conduct or language separate from the entire organization. We exist to facilitate the culture/good working relationships. 

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As the central theme of the article explores, “can HR professionals build meaningful friendships at work? 

My answer is YES, with a lot of caution. People value and respect people who have clear principles and are honest – Know what is right and what is wrong, and know when to say ‘NO‘.

The real essence of finding the right balance lies in how we bond with our people and the organization. People come to those who listen, can understand their problem and offer solutions to them. Our bonding with the people will not only instill confidence but will also give strength to them.

So, how do we maintain the RIGHT BALANCE? By doing the following and more;

1. Examining Motives

While friendships are an essential part of life, friendship in the workplace has always been a sensitive subject and while the work-friendships might be unavoidable sometimes, we need to make sure we examine the motives of both parties before diving headlong.

We must make sure that any HR/Employee relationship is for the right reasons; built on mutual trust and respect.

2. Establishing Clear Boundaries

Even if we are friends, we need to keep up a certain level of professionalism. An HR person must know how to stay on the edge. Becoming over-friendly may be counter-productive. As often we don’t realize we need boundaries until they’ve already been crossed. 

As we form relationships at work – inevitably, remember to establish boundaries to guide behaviour and make sure the other party knows and understands them.

3. Not Playing Favorites

A big hazard of HR-employee friendships is promoting a sense of employee favoritism. 

If HR has close friendships with certain individuals, it may seem like they are given more opportunities and less scrutiny than their peers. Not to mention, HR may inevitably have to deliver difficult news to an employee who they consider a friend. Both parties must be mature enough to understand that your professional roles take priority and that if an employee steps out of line, we will have to step in with your HR hat on and do our job.

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4. Avoiding Gossip

As an HR professional, it is our job to set an example for employee behavior and report on any conduct that goes against company policies. Most employees are conscious of the fact that HR is not the place for rumors, but if we have friends across the company, we may encounter gossip. As a rule, we must beware of employee gossip and always be ready to respond as HR.

HR is the moral compass of the company. This doesn’t have to mean HR is the bad guy or the “Principal’s office,” but HR should set an example for employee behavior.

5. Being Personal

While the need to maintain boundaries is paramount, it is also important that HR is human. There are many ways to be kind, welcoming, and caring while still maintaining professional boundaries. Striking this balance matters. It is important to ensure that as HR professionals we are empowered in our role, while also approachable to employees.

Our primary focus must be to listen and advocate for the employee’s best interests. It’s about finding that middle-point between being professional and being human/humane.

Interpersonal relationships are an integral part of work, however, as HR, it is vital and mandatory to strike that balance between friendliness and professionalism. 

There might be no right answer as to whether HR employees should or should not be friends with other employees. There’s also no clear cut principle, but setting boundaries without forgetting your human qualities is a great place to start.

“What do you think?  HR/Employee friendships – “to be or not to be”?

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