can you have close work friendships when you’re in HR?

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 went through, and I got called in to my boss’s office. Turns out that Linda told the VP of her department that I had told her 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 or it would make it even more difficult to find out what was really going on with her 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?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago. You can read it here.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. Tipcat

    Why didn’t her boss tell them that they can’t have co-worker friend. This seems like very basic on-boarding info.

    1. Evil HR Person

      Because most seasoned HR people already know that not having friendships at work sorta comes with the territory. I have had friendships, but they were always people from the HR department itself, which is usually easier.

  2. Gigi

    Why would telling someone they’re a high potential employee be a mistake? I’ve gotten that type of feedback multiple times during reviews.

    1. Arctic

      Yeah that’s a really weird thing to say. You should never let someone know their own worth to the company? That’s a terrible policy.
      Linda took it too far but some people do. The lesson isn’t to not encourage high potential employees by alerting them to their value.

    2. fposte

      That’s a good point. I think maybe the parenthetical is a measure of the OP’s frustration with Linda rather than with the practice itself.

      1. Psyche

        Yeah. It seemed like she thought it was a mistake because it motivated Linda to ask for an unreasonable raise.

      2. Someone Else

        Yeah I read that not as it’s a bad thing to do in general, but that in this specific instance, Linda got a bit ahead of herself because of it (or OP believes because of it).

      1. Arctic

        I don’t. Linda was a high value employee and had every right to go after what she deserved. She didn’t have the right to bring LW into it and make false claims. But what she was doing before that was completely appropriate. Lying to her about her potential wouldn’t have made things better.
        What turned out to be a bad idea was being her friend.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Right?

      As HR, I would never tell someone not to give that feedback.

      Here Linda went off the rails and hears what she wants. You’ll never fix or side step that proactively in a review situation. Since you’d document that conversation. Unlike a personal conversation like how the LW had blow up in her face.

      And she was promoted…she’s got potential. She’s just not aware of payscales, that’s usually normal and as HR, I know not to try to explain things to anyone in that aspect. They can ask and be denied.

      1. Sloan Kittering

        Well, that and she threw OP under the bus when things started to go off the rails. That’s her real sin here.

    4. AnotherAlison

      I think you SHOULD tell someone that. If people don’t know they are especially valued, they will look for a manager or outside company that does see their worth.

    5. GrandBargain

      I had the sense that ‘high potential employee’ was a designation assigned in some HR tracking system. Indicating that this is a person to be watched and to be considered for stretch assignments and promotions. The existense of such a designation/system seems like something that should not be talked about with the employee.

      I do agree that talking to the employee about her for potential growth within the company is a good idea.

      1. Où est la bibliothèque?

        Agreed–what if someone heard that and thought that they could count on getting a raise? Or a promotion?

  3. Bigintodogs

    Do you want to be close friends with this person anymore? She seems like she used your friendship (untruthfully) to get herself more money. And she made you look bad in front of the VP of your company. She took advantage of your friendship, and that’s crappy of her.

    1. kc89

      (and did my best to subtly distance myself from someone who was clearly not a friend).

      seems like they know

    2. Yikes Dude

      Right, I do think you can have work friends if you are employed in HR, but the problem here is that Linda doesn’t sound like a good friend.

  4. Long Time Lurker

    I had a close work friend who was our local HR person. She and I got quite friendly, although we didn’t engage socially outside of the office. We did go for half hour walks every day, but as Alison suggests in her answer we were very careful about the topics we engaged in. Knowing her as I did I got pretty good at determining when she was going to have to lay someone off (we were going through a downturn at the time, and she would get a bit sad and quiet) but I never brought it up with her until after I’d found out from someone else that it had happened. Even then she would just say it was difficult, or had gone well.

    In retrospect she probably did share more with me than she technically should have, but it helped that I was also a support person (albeit not in HR) and outside the normal chain of command. I also was good at keeping my mouth shut about what she told me.

    But at no point did I forget she was in HR- we were never friends on social media, for example- and I would NEVER have told my manager what she and I talked about. Linda really overstepped here.

  5. Falling Diphthong

    At work and in life, people will not interpret your sitting and nodding while they orate to mean they think you’re foolish and do not endorse this course of action.

    Thousands of people are convinced that entire busses and offices agree with them–about politics, about the Bigfoot scourge, about their undeniable rightness in all arguments with everyone.

    1. teclatrans

      Yes, this. Aside from work friendships being majorly problematic for HR folks, OpPs approach was kind of disastrous. She should have said explicitly that work conversation was off the table, could we please change the topic, etc. I know this is an old letter, but I would want to advise to OP to interrogate that response in herself — in order to have fun and hang out, she “quickly learned to nod” and turn out the other person. This is a strategy for when you are powerless and need to appease someone, or get through a situation. Ignoring the question of developing healthy personal boundaries for the moment, when you are HR, you have power. And your silence has weight.

      1. Falling Diphthong

        Exactly. It makes sense if this person has power over you, or you don’t want to put effort into arguing. OP has power, and her silence has meaning.

  6. Passing by

    Someone who lies about what they were told their raise would be doesn’t seem like a great candidate for promotion.

  7. Ginger

    “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”

    ….and this why people dislike HR. Why shouldn’t a high-value employee negotiate for a pay increase and promotion (and a woman at that, although gender doesn’t matter but let’s not miss the fact that women statistically do not ask for raises the same way men do on average)??

    Now, we can all agree Linda went too far and engaged in poor behavior that should have ruined any good reputation she had but on the face of it, she should have asked for a bold increase. Why not?

    1. Tobias Funke

      Hard agree. I feel like this entire blog is predicated on encouraging employers and employees to be direct. So someone was direct with her and she handled it not-the-greatest. That’s not a knock on directness. That is a knock on how she proceeded. Keeping the fact that someone is “high value” or “high potential” under wraps seems almost like negging.

    2. RUKiddingMe

      Yep. The thing is thst had Linda been Lyle it’s unlikely anyone, inclufing OP … because internalized misogyny is alive and well … would have a single negative thought about him asking boldly for…anything.

      It would be seen as “take charge/assertive,” etc. Positives for males, detriments for women.

      They lying…yeah … just bad. Asking for a promotion and a rsise … good gor her!

    3. Where’s my coffee?

      This HR person seems somewhat newer to the field. In general, experienced HR professionals find it best practice to encourage transparent feedback about performance and potential. They also generally know that close friendships at work are not a great idea in HR and have come to terms with that.

  8. Psyche

    One problem is that nodding is usually seen as agreement. Even if it is meant as acknowledgement, it is usually seen as agreement. I wonder if the OP nodded when Linda said how much she was asking for and that is why she later said that she had been “told” that she would receive more than she did. It may have been a misunderstanding and not a lie.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      Yep.

      One of the things I was warned about during training for my job (not HR) is that even vaguely positive fillers can be taken as active encouragement, and that can have real consequences in terms of the client’s takeaway.

  9. Mary

    Huh, to me, this doesn’t sound like, “you can’t have friends if you’re in HR”, it sounds like, “you can’t be friends with someone like Linda.” Alison’s advice is, “you can’t have this kind of friendship when you’re in HR,” but frankly who’d want this kind of friendship? It sounded tedious and one-sided even before Linda decided to drop you in the shit.

    All friendships involve not saying or doing things that make your friend uncomfortable or put them in an awkward position with regard to their other responsibilities or loyalties. “Don’t moan to your work friend about their department” and “don’t try and presume on a friendship to get confidential work info” are in the same basic category as “don’t tell your friend you can’t stand her husband”. It’s just basic respect.

  10. mf

    The best course of action would probably have been to delineate between your roles as Linda’s friend and her HR person. If Linda is a good friend, she’ll understand why you can’t put your job at risk by advising her about stuff like this.

    “Linda, as your friend, I’d be really happy to see you get a raise and a promotion. But as an HR person, I can’t really talk to you about this since I have a conflict of interest here. The only advice I can give you is to make sure you do lots of research on what you should be asking for in terms of salary.”

    1. Someone Else

      I wouldn’t even go that far. Be friendly with Linda sure, but as soon as she started talking about work stuff “I can’t really talk to you about this since I have a conflict of interest here.” That should’ve been in place of any sitting and nodding. In theory at that point there would no longer be anything to sit and not-nod at. If Linda kept going, go on repeat “I really can’t discuss this with you” and then if she still doesn’t stop, you need to stop hanging out with Linda.

  11. Gymmie

    In another possible scenario my friend who was NOT the HR friend, but the regular employee ran into trouble with the friendship. They had been friends prior to working at the same company. My friend was having a lot of issues with her manager and had asked for some advice on how to address it with said manager. I think she was looking for advice from a friend that was skilled in this type of thing. The HR friend felt like she “had to report” what my friend was saying, and it got back to my friend’s manager and of course did not go well (this manager can do what he wants). BTW, there was nothing bad about what my friend was saying, just responding to being treated in bad ways etc. Also, everyone remember, HR is not looking out for you but for the org. Always important to remember they will probably repeat what you say unless it has to be confidential.

    1. Can't Think of a Name

      I don’t think that was an HR is the enemy problem, but rather an individual problem (also the fact that “this manager can do what he wants” signals some larger overall problems…).

      I had a similar situation, where I was the HR employee and my friend was the regular employee, and she was having a lot of difficulties with her boss. From what my friend told me, her boss’ behavior really was quite bad, and she needed advice for what to do. I simply gave her the resources and information she needed to make a report if she needed to, as well as advice on things like documentation and CYA steps. The most I ever talked to my colleagues about the issue was to tell my coworker who would handle the case “hey, be on the lookout for an email from X.” And I NEVER discussed my friend’s conversation with her manager because a) it wasn’t my business b) I only knew my friend’s side, and the manager could have had quite a different perspective and c) I didn’t know when I’d work with my friend’s manager, and wanted to preserve the relationship/not have my opinion of her be predetermined.

      Also, a lot of sensitive conversations are confidential, even within HR. It sounds like your friend’s HR rep may have had some judgment issues.

      1. HR in the city

        I agree with you that this situation Gymmie described is not an HR problem but an individual problem. In most cases there is the employee side, manager side, and what actually happened. So no one is usually entirely right in most situations. Also, each situation is unique so what works in one situation might not translate to another even when the situations seem similar. HR does keep lots of information confidential. If we aren’t going to keep it confidential than we will tell you that from the get-go. But again not all HR people are created equal & all it take is one bad HR person to ruin the reputation of the rest of us.

  12. Orange You Glad

    My company previously had an HR Director that was super gossipy-y and played favorites with her friends in the company. We were a smaller company at the time so our HR department was usually just this woman or occasionally she had 1 employee under her. She is the only person at this company I have ever had a problem with. She made it very clear who were her friends and then gossiped with those friends about everyone else (I would occasionally overhear them in the hallway or bathroom). Her actions made me uncomfortable since if I ever had a problem at work, she would be the person I would have to deal with to resolve it and then I would always wonder if I was going to be her next topic of gossip.
    OP does not sound like my former HR Director but I share this as an example of what it looks like to everyone else when HR is close friends with some people in the organization and not others. IMO HR should be friendly and approachable, but not involved in anyone’s personal lives nor chatting/gossiping about work topics.

  13. Cowgirlinhiding

    Yeah – People seem to think if they have a friend in HR they have a step up on things. So, I have become a friend of none. HR really is the loneliest job ever.

  14. HR in the city

    I work in HR and made the mistake of talking to someone who works at the same company that I actually went to high school with. Part of the conversation was her telling me about a crazy situation that was going on in her department involving her and two other employees. I sort of laughed and said that sounds crazy. Well it then became that HR was laughing about the whole situation and was on her side. She was telling other employees this as they were on their smoke breaks well then it was spread around the department. Well that’s not even remotely close to what happened. So you really have to be careful when you work in HR how you respond to things when having a conversation with someone you kind of know. People twist things sometimes.

  15. Whaaaaaaat

    Our HR Manager (who also wears lots of other hats in our tiny non-profit) is dating another manager and was before the other manager started at the organisation. The manager started in the role providing coverage in a position that they had trouble filling, and eventually got the job full-time. (Apparently not going through the usual competitive process)

    Finding that out six months into my time here really messed with my faith in our organisation, HR, the CEO (for approving it) and how things get done around here.

    Our HR Manager has also investigated other workers for inappropriate conduct, which.

    What.

  16. Loopy

    It’s not just HR.
    I am a manager over a large number of people in a very volatile environment. Besides hiring and letting people go, there are other issues that need to be kept absolutely confidential and are often highly charged, like client relations or pay.
    I am doing OK on the surface, but never being able to talk things through is very hard. I cannot dump this on my mentors – they are senior executives and I value their time. I cannot talk with my boss… we are both slammed and due to stress our rapport has unfortunately deteriorated. I certainly want to spare my spouse. A therapist will have no idea what I am talking about, ditto friends who are mostly not in management.
    Any of you BTDT and what do you do?

    1. Clementine

      I have never had a large team, just a small team. If at all possible, find another job. Knowing your suffering is temporary will help.

    2. Michio Pa

      It sounds like you have a few different issues going on: general work stress, wanting to talk through problems, wanting to let off steam. I think you can split these among different groups. Perhaps your spouse/therapist can help with stress. Perhaps you could journal or talk out loud at a recording software to process work problems out loud, but in private. Are there any other managers in your office you can talk to, if you must speak to people who know your reports in question? Can you talk to anyone else in your field–former coworkers, etc? These people might also be good sources to go to for complaints over drinks. Maybe you can get a “Teapot managers” group together on Friday evenings to build up a support group.

    3. LGC

      Do you have any peers? That might be your best bet.

      I think you CAN “dump this on your executives” in small doses, and even your boss. You sound like you’re making the same mistake that I do – you don’t want to bother others because you think that you alone should be able to fix it.

    4. SarahTheEntwife

      Are there any professional organizations for your field that you might be able to find an outside mentor or peer to share notes with?

  17. AutumnAlmanac

    Wowser. That’s a tricky one. Being realistic, and as Linda has already ridden roughshod over your career, I’d advise callousness, because she clearly doesn’t give a monkey about you, your career, or your current positition in the workplace.

    In your situation, I’d probably email my immediate boss, my supervisor, and HR, saying something like “While I am happy to continue with my work, I’d appreciate all records being accurate. I’m aware that there have been some issues with [Awful person], and I’d like to give you my view. May we schedule a meeting?”

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