A reader writes:
I work at a company with a large number of employees under the age of 30 (myself included), and because of that, there’s a very social atmosphere. I’ve become quite close with a woman in a difficult department (let’s call her Linda) who is very fun to be around but will often incessantly talk about work. Because I work in HR, it often puts me in a precarious position and I’ve learned to just nod my head and listen to her complain.
Linda’s boss recently resigned and left quite a bit of uncertainty for that department, which was already in a state of turmoil. Because Linda was a high-potential employee (and someone made the mistake of telling her that), she took it as an indication that she was now in a position of power to negotiate a salary increase and promotion, because the department wouldn’t want her to resign as well. She talked quite a bit outside of work about this situation, with me mostly nodding and listening, and I always stayed impartial. I did try to give her some advice on how to go about asking for the raise so as not to sound aggressive or demanding, so she didn’t end up shooting herself in the foot. Linda told me the amount she was going to ask for, which was way above what her job was worth, and I told her, as a friend and without invoking any specifics of company, that she could certainly ask for it but it was unlikely she’d get that much of a raise.
About two weeks later, Linda’s promotion goes through (with a salary much more appropriate for her role), and I get called in to my boss’s office. Turns out that Linda told the VP of her department that I had told her (Linda mentioned me by name) that she was going to get $3k more than what she received. I did no such thing, nor did I ever indicate an exact number, I just told her that what she was asking for was unreasonable. It caused a huge headache, and made me look bad not only to my boss but also to that VP. I thought about my options and determined that I really couldn’t say anything to Linda – the conversation was had in confidence with the VP, and if word got out that she had talked to HR, it would likely make it even more difficult to find out what was really going on with that group in the future. So I moved on and learned my lesson to keep my mouth shut in the future (and did my best to subtly distance myself from someone who was clearly not a friend).
I’m curious – what would your approach to this situation have been?
Yeah, you can’t have these kinds of friendships when you’re in HR.
That’s part of the deal with you work in HR. It doesn’t matter if you just sit and nod while your coworker complains about salary — in their eyes, that can come across as “Lavinia thinks that I’m justified in being upset about my salary.” And that can be seen as you speaking for the company, or at least using your official knowledge to inform your response as a friend, whether you intend it that way or not. It doesn’t matter if you explicitly tell them that that’s not the case; too many people will assume it is anyway.
I get that there’s a bunch of people under 30 there and it’s a social atmosphere. But you have to have more boundaries than everyone else. Frankly, it’s possible/likely that they all need better boundaries too, but you in particular really need them because you’re in HR. You need to be able to recommend that some of those people be fired or laid off (and to be able to do the actual laying off if it comes to that), you need to be seen as impartial, you need people to believe that you handle confidential information discreetly (which is harder when you are known to have close outside-of-work friendships with some coworkers), and you need people to believe that your friendships don’t play a role in sensitive company decisions, from raises to discipline to layoffs to how allegations of harassment or discrimination are handled (the latter being particularly tricky, since people may not even want to report incidents to you if you’re known to be close to the harasser).
You can be friendly, yes. Warm and collegial, yes. But outside-of-work friendships? Not unless you’re extremely careful about navigating the boundaries, which definitely doesn’t include a coworker talking to you “quite a bit outside of work” about her raise strategy.
Your job is to represent the company. That doesn’t turn off when you’re with coworkers, even when you’re outside work. It kind of sucks, but it’s an inherent part of the gig.