if I work in HR, can I have friends at work?

A reader writes:

I recently got a new job in HR at a small (under 100 people) company. This is my first job in the HR field, something I’ve been wanting to get into for a while. I’m excited that I finally made it.

This company has a lot of employees who are much older than I am and have very different lifestyles. However, there are a handful of people in other departments who are closer to my age, and I’ve started chatting with them when we run into each other during the day. I’ve even hung out with a few of them outside of work.

Recently, I’ve started feeling a bit uncomfortable. As a member of the HR team, I have access to a lot of information – salary details, performance reviews, who’s up for promotions, etc. A family member told me that HR staff aren’t really supposed to have friends in the company because of the potential for influence and information sharing.

I’ve tried not to share any information with my work friends that isn’t totally relevant, but I once told some of them that a manager was hiring a new team member for a newly created position; that news wasn’t officially announced for another week and was actually quite a big deal. No one got upset with me, but it was very clear that I should not have told anyone about this.

I also recently held a feedback session with Erica, who manages my friends Nancy and Carter. Erica has been having issues with her team calling in sick on busy days when coverage is already light, and we decided that the best solution to this is to rearrange her team’s schedules – but I obviously can’t (and won’t!) mention anything about that to Nancy or Carter. I don’t know when that change will be announced, and in the meantime I’ve been trying to keep my mouth shut but I’m feeling uncomfortable every time I talk to them and realize they don’t know what’s coming.

So I ask: as an HR staffer, am I allowed to have friends at work? Or are the rules different for me?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 135 comments… read them below }

  1. Just Sayin'*

    Our HR manager has a son who works for the company. They are both awesome but it seems like a bad idea.

    1. Lab Boss*

      HR isn’t management but the whole department has a degree of “authority” or “control” over the whole company- I wouldn’t let Bob’s son work for him directly, and I wouldn’t let Bob be in HR and his son working in the company. In either case Bob would be immediately hammered with conflicts and opportunities for his bias- conscious or unconscious- toward his son to affect both the way he does his own work and how his son is treated at work.

      1. AlwaysAnon*

        I think it depends on the size of the company. I work for a megacorp and assuming you’re not really high up the HR chain (e.g. director, VP), your authority is limited to certain areas/departments. In that case, Bob might be the HR rep for the Accounting department but it would be okay for his son to work in the Marketing department.

        1. doreen*

          Even in a large organization it can lead to problems – for example, there are a number of assistant or associate directors of HR at my employer, and each is responsible for certain work locations . It might seem fine if Bob is the HR specialist for Buffalo office and his son works in NYC – but even that may cause issues as surely Bob knows the HR specialist assigned to NYC. And will the son working in NYC mean Bob can never be promoted to the director of HR ? Not in my experience – and there are a load of people at my current employer who are presumed to have the positions they do because they share a very uncommon surname with someone who was previously the director of HR and has since been promoted higher.

          1. Marillenbaum*

            Sometimes, that’s also relatively difficult to avoid. For instance, military bases or embassies often hire for certain roles from the pool of spouses and family members of current staff, because the constant moving means it is one way to make sure those people have jobs. It fills the role and makes sure their military/diplomatic spouse is more likely to stay in the organization because their family member is happy. There is a risk, but there are also nepotism rules in place meant to ensure that people stay out of each other’s chains of command. So, if David works in Llamas, then his spouse Anne might work in Alpacas, but not Llamas.

        2. Ace in the Hole*

          It also depends on the size of the community. In a small-town rural area it’s kind of unavoidable to have non-work relationships with coworkers… for example, my agency only has about 30 employees. About a quarter of them have at least one relative also working here. That proportion is even higher at larger agencies, because they just employ a huge chunk of the county population.

          It’s against our policy to have someone directly supervise a close relative (spouse, child/parent, etc), but if they’re in different divisions and not supervising each other then it’s pretty normal for this area and may be unavoidable depending on the size of the organization.

      2. Lab Boss*

        Fair points, in sufficiently large companies it might not be an issue and in sufficiently small areas it might be impossible to avoid :D

    2. STG*

      We have an HR rep whose fiance was a clerk in the mail area. One of them ended up moving on to greener pastures eventually but since the HR rep wasn’t responsible for her fiance’s department in HR, it wasn’t an issue.

    3. DG*

      My boss’ spouse is our senior HR exec. I like them both, and thankfully the feeling is mutual, but it’s already led to an awkward situation for me. I was recently debating whether to disclose a medical issue that was impacting my ability to work and decided not to because I didn’t want that info to get back to my boss.

      1. Lurker*

        For what it’s worth I handled HR at ex-job and an employee disclosed a medical condition to me. To this day (and I no longer work there), I’ve never told anyone, including my partner. Granted my partner didn’t work at the same company, but I did talk to him about work stuff. While I might have mentioned “so and so has a medical situation and we have to do X but the boss wants to do Y” I would never specifically say what the medical condition was. But I understand your reluctance.

        1. Random Bystander*

          Not all HR is as good about that. In fact, I was talking with my youngest son about something that happened to me way in the past (he’d been relating something about a friend of his and HR issues at that workplace). When I was very early in my pregnancy with my first son, I had an episode of spotting and the dr put me on bedrest, sent me to an ultrasound, and ultimately we found that it was a benign situation not a threat (and obviously, from the start of the sentence, it ended happily). I wasn’t even ready to go public with the fact that I was pregnant (I had had two prior miscarriages). HR person (one individual at that work place) was good friends with some people who worked in my department, and when I got back after the health issue was resolved, had to deal with rumors that I’d had a miscarriage!

          So, a few stories like that, and the reluctance becomes all too sensible, unfortunately. People *should* be able to trust that persons who have detailed knowledge (financial, medical) know what is confidential and have the integrity to keep it confidential instead of “ooh, have I got juicy gossip”.

  2. egallison*

    OP, I feel for you, and this for me was part of reason not to continue working in HR.

    I worked at my previous company for three years, the first as an administrative assistant, and the second two in HR. In that first year I made friends all around the office, especially since I supported every department. When I moved to HR I was not able to (nor did I want to) end those friendships. It put me in weird positions, although not any horrible ones, and I had basically no decision-making power-but it definitely COULD have been bad in a way that makes me cringe a bit now.

    Making money and having a nice social life are the two most important parts of work for me, so in the end, that factored into my decision not to continue pursuing the HR field.
    It kinda stinks, good luck!

  3. Tracy*

    I would say at the very least, be cautious and don’t overshare. If there are any complaints, make sure they go through formal channels – unless someone is blowing off steam I guess?? It could be tricky so be careful but I wouldn’t want to cut off any friendships.

    1. Artemesia*

      The OP has already committed what is a firable offense — letting out business information about a position before the announcement. She absolutely cannot have personal friends at work. If she wants to stay in HR, she needs to get more professional AND work to develop friendships in another venue — time to join some community groups, meet ins, church — whatever with the mission of cultivating personal friendships.

      1. Clisby*

        I agree. This account did make me curious, since I’ve never worked in HR (nor would I have the slightest desire to do that.) Do HR departments not have policies around this kind of thing? I would have thought that one of the vital components of onboarding a new employee who had never worked in HR before would be to spell out potential conflicts of interest, confidentiality requirements, and consequences for not following those polices. As in “Revealing confidential company information is a firable offense.”

        We see so many examples on AAM of terrible advice from family members, but this poster should have listened to the advice she got.

      2. Andy*

        In reality, firing over leaking new position would be super surprising move. Although it is in the “business information” bucket and she should not done that, it is not like leaking customers private data.

        Most companies and manager distinguish between those two quite well. It would take repeated ignoring “don’t do it again” to get to firing.

        1. Clisby*

          To say that something is a fireable offense doesn’t necessarily mean, depending on circumstances, that someone would be fired for a first infraction.

          But it should not take “repeated ignoring” of orders to get to firing. Actually, I don’t think ignoring repeated orders to do anything is required for firing. Ignoring the first order and committing the offense a second time is plenty reason to fire someone.

          1. Andy*

            Not every place is “at will” place. So, what you say is not true even legally. That is actually where PIP plans come from – that you can’t fire people for minor reasons and have to have paperwork trail.

            And that is just legal side. From management side, it is not even reasonable style of management.

            1. Clisby*

              Most places in the US are “at will.” And we’re not talking about a minor offense. Generally speaking, PIPs are not because employers *need* a paper trail to fire someone – that sounds more like a union environment, and those employees are decidedly in the minority. PIPs are there only because a company is willing to do this before firing; and there are offenses where they should go to firing right away. I’m not sure whether this case is one, because the employee says she didn’t have previous HR experience, and maybe the company just does a terrible job of setting policies for its HR staff. If that’s the case, that’s the first thing they need to fix.

              1. Andy*

                The employee in this case says that “No one got upset with me, but it was very clear that I should not have told anyone about this.” So it sound minor.

                The impact of people knowing about new position week in advance *is* minor. The team members normally know about possibility of new opening long in advance, as managers negotiate about whole thing. You know the whole “hey lead, are we going to get senior tester?”

                Whole of US is not “at will” and the more professional job, the less likely are people to be really fired that quickly.

                As with PIP, there is a reason why itnis rare for them to not end up with success. They are not designed to fix issues, but to make firing crystal documented. (That is not complaint, just the way tool is used).

                1. NeutralJanet*

                  49 out of the 50 US states are “at will”, so I’m pretty happy with Clisby’s description of “most places” being at will. It’s true, of course, that most jobs won’t fire someone immediately for a tiny offense, but they absolutely can, and personally, I also wouldn’t wait for someone to ignore “don’t do this again” repeatedly before firing them–that would mean at least three offenses if not more, which is a problem if they are exactly the same offense.

                  I’m curious–are you referring to “success” with a PIP as ending with a firing? If your thought is that a PIP is only ever meant to be a prelude to termination (which is not what I’ve found in my experience, but anyway), then you must expect a PIP to end in termination except in rare occasions?

              2. Canadian*

                Sure, but also let’s remember that even if most places in the US are “at will”, most places in the world are not the US. I know this site’s readership is largely US American, and therefore are biased toward assuming everyone else is too and that every other employment and labour law system is similar – if not identical – to the US paradigm, but (thankfully) they aren’t all just like the US, even among countries in the Anglosphere. In my country, our employment law and labour laws are not hugely dissimilar to the US’s, but the differences are significant. We already have a big enough problem with uneducated laypeople here assuming that whatever law the US has, that’s what we have, when in fact the legal reality often differs sharply.

                I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a law librarian and some of the areas I’ve done the most work in are employment and labour law, and human rights law, and there are marked divergences between the law of Canada and the law of the United States. Disabusing people with no legal education of this notion, and its particulars, has been a big part of my volunteer work outside of my actual job.

    2. Nanani*

      I think the point is that even if OP is relentlessnessly professional and has perfect boundaries, the -appearance- is still bad.
      People who don’t know her might assume they can’t speak freely because it’s about someone they know OP is friends with, leading them to leave the job over something that could have been fixed if they’d brought it up to HR.

      1. Amaranth*

        And really, they can’t, right? Just because OP might learn about an infraction outside of normal business hours, ethically there are things she would need to report. It sounds like OP struggles to walk that line so she probably needs to choose between work relationships and working in HR.

  4. Meep*

    Yes, you can have friends at work. But you also need to be professional, which it sounds like you are not.

    My mom has been in HR for 30 years and she has work friends. She is even the godmother to one of them that she has been working with for 15 years. But she is professional and keeps work and personal separate

    On the flip side, our lovely “HR manager” is not very professional and spreads people’s personal (medical) information around like it is gossip found on the National Enquirer. She shared “inside business knowledge” to try and make people feel like they are “in the know”. It is a mess. She is going to get us or herself sued one of these days. When the company ever sells, I give her two months max.

    Point is, don’t be like her. Be like my mother.

    1. HR Professional*

      As someone who works in HR, I personally don’t think acting as a godmother to an employee is professional. If your mother ever has to terminate that employee or handle a disciplinary issue, there is likely to be anger and resentment from the employee.
      I believe in being friendly, but not friends, with people at work. That means I will chat with them in the office, but I would never develop a friendship outside of work with any of them because it just muddies the water.

      1. Mental Lentil*

        I think it depends on what their function in HR is. If all they do is insurance work, for instance, that’s one thing. But if they have access to a lot of private or privileged information, yeah, this is not a good thing.

        1. Benefits veteran*

          ” If all they do is insurance work” ……
          Oh, the things you will learn doing just insurance work will astound you. There was the vasectomy reversal, numerous cancer diagnoses, terminal illnesses, drug problems, miscarriages, abortions, fertility issues, mental health issues, ugly divorces, disabling conditions, HIV-AIDS , dementia, and on and on. I would never make friends with any other employee except in my own unit and even then with extreme caution.
          Before I went into benefits administration and two decades before HIPAA, I worked for an small life insurance company where all of the employee’s medical claims went through the HR person’s secretary. This woman regularly talked about employees’ conditions. (I used my spouse’s insurance rather than submit some fairly personal claims through her.) People complained about it but she only got fired when she gossiped about an exec’s medical condition.

      2. Andy*

        HR don’t make firing decisions here. They might have to be the one to do the talk, but most often manager have to say those words.

        1. HR Professional*

          Managers at my company handle terminations for cause, but HR is usually present in some form. We had to downsize due to COVID-19, and HR handled that completely.

          1. allathian*

            Yup. The manager is present if someone’s fired for cause, but it’s all done by HR if it’s layoffs for financial reasons, or because of an emergency like Covid that doesn’t necessarily impact finances immediately but will do so in the medium or long term, in all the bigger orgs I’ve worked for. I haven’t been fired for cause, but I’ve been laid off for financial reasons twice.

      3. Meep*

        They work in different departments and she would not be the one to fire him if anything arose. She has 0 influence over his job. They are collegues. Again, they worked with each other for 15 years.

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          I don’t think them working in different departments changes anything, nor does the number of years they’ve worked together. I someone has a complaint about your mom’s friend that needs to be brought to HR, they’re not going to want to bring it to his godmother.

          1. Former Employee*

            From what Meep said, I’m assuming their mother handles benefits/insurance matters. If someone went to HR to complain about an employee and they brought their issue to the lady who is in charge of insurance, I’d wonder about the person bringing the complaint!

      4. Marzipan Shepherdess*

        Well, if the mother ever DOES have to fire ANYONE there’s likely to be anger and resentment; most people don’t react to be fired by hugging the person firing them and squealing “Goody gumdrops! Just what I’ve always wanted!” But in this case, there’s likely to be a deeper sense of personal betrayal of a friendship, and the gossip (not to mention the mother’s reputation at that company) could get very nasty indeed.

        1. qvaken*

          Well, the other issue is that if there are mass layoffs or somebody needs to be let go and HR or management needs to decide who that will be, and the godchild’s job is spared, there could be the perception that the godchild got preferential treatment because they have a personal connection in the HR department.

    2. Persephone Mongoose*

      I really disagree that your mom is setting professional boundaries! The other HR person is certainly more blatant in her unprofessionalism, but no way is being in HR and a godmother to a coworker’s child a good look, especially since there is a LOT of context missing.

    3. Dona Florinda*

      I’m sorry, but what if an employee has a complaint about your mother’s godchild? Even if she were to handle things professionally, a lot of people simply wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking up because of the *appearance* of favoritism.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Yes. Alison says it’s OK to be friends with the other HR people. Even if the godmother isn’t the one to have to deal with the godson, she’s still friendly with the other HR person who does. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to suspend your godson” is not a team-building winner.

  5. Orange You Glad*

    Every time this topic comes up I’m reminded of the HR rep back when I first started my job. It was a small company and the only HR person was young and probably in over her head but she was the biggest office gossip. I was very uncomfortable around her as any time I encountered her in the break room or hallway she was always gossiping with someone. Later, when my boss confronted her about why his recommendations for awards/recognition for employees from our department were always ignored, she said we weren’t popular enough. It was a relief when she left and our parent company took over HR.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      I actually think whether or not an HR person can be friends with others at work depends on the HR person. We have an admin who can’t be trusted with any information at all, but I have other HR friends who don’t share information with me and we are in the same department.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        And I should clarify between friend and friendly – similar to what Alison said, HH is one thing. Going to someone’s house or hanging out one-on-one is another.

      2. Emily*

        Allison’s point about the *perception* of a conflict of interest is important. You could try to keep things strictly separate and never discuss work with your friend, but even knowing you’re friends could impact how other people at the company access HR.

        1. qvaken*

          I agree. Also, I think a lot of people believe they’re capable of having dual relationships and not letting these become conflicts of interest, when nobody is capable of this.

          Whether somebody unconsciously favours their personal contact because they want to preserve the personal connection, or whether they are unconsciously much more harsh with their personal contact because they’re trying to avoid the perception of favouritism, I think it’s impossible for their treatment of that person not to be impacted by their personal connection to them.

  6. Richard Hershberger*

    So just to clarify, if you work in HR, you have a friend who works in the same company, and your friend has a coworker who brings in spicy food for their lunch, you can’t fire the coworker after your friend steals the lunch?

    1. TPS Reporter*

      First I would laugh at my friend for being so foolish, help the friend find some milk and pepto, secretly praise the co-worker for such a devious scheme, then I would find a new job out of HR.

      1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

        I know this is a joke…I do, really… It’s just…that whole situation was so wild!

        What scheme?? That person brought in lunch, because they wanted to eat it! They had zero intention or reason to think any reasonable person would steal their leftovers!! Not even a sealed meal or fresh takeout, but leftovers!!!

        What the what?!?

        …I’m going to go take a “chill out” now (the self-imposed, adult equivalent to a time out).

  7. Not So Evil HR Lady*

    Alison, I appreciate your thoughtful and nuanced response to the letter writer’s question! I have many time questioned the boundaries I need to maintain and what level of relationships I’m allowed to cultivate as a person working in HR.

    For context, I am the leave management coordinator, so I have zero involvement in other functions such as staffing, hiring, retention, employee relations, payroll, benefits and so forth. I am required to maintain confidentiality with the large volume of medical information I receive. (Most of the leaves I manage are FMLA-based and in nearly every case medical certification is required.)

    That being said, I have been able to develop warm and gracious working relationships with many of my agency’s staff (I work for the state government), and work hard to cultivate their trust. Since I was hired just over 3 years ago, the increase in employees bringing leave needs to me has increased astronomically because they know I will protect their information and am consistent in following FMLA/bargaining agreements/state policies.

    I have spent time with other employees outside of work, including those in my HR division, but am very careful to maintain privacy. If anything, we are all actually relieved to talk about any other topic excepting work, especially since the pandemic began. (I work at my state’s health agency and we all have borne a great responsibility towards the COVID-19 response. COVID leave was insane and I’m intensely relieved our state’s policy ended, LOL.)

    I hope the author of this letter does take your advice about working with older colleagues and learning form them as well as imparting her own knowledge. My co-workers in HR and I have learned so much from one another without violating confidentiality.

    1. Smithy*

      Absolutely – because I think that for a number of us finding the balance between personal relationships/friendships and being professionally appropriate isn’t automatically obvious. It might be because of being in a field like HR or other reasons. Some jobs just have more difficult social boundaries, and personally I’ve found that time and mentorship have been the best way to hone those skills and experiences.

  8. HrDpt1*

    I’m in HR, and I think professional boundaries are extremely useful for work life balance as well as HR related entanglement. We have had serious issues arise that should not have been part of the workplace, like pressure to organize an intervention, that would not have been in play had there been firmer boundaries in place. In my opinion, there is enough work related drama to go around without inviting in more complicated dynamics from the real world, too.

  9. Janet Rosen*

    I totally agree with AAM’s reply to seek (older) HR coworkers …. we are all people and older people believe it or not have actually lived through your stage of life! Some are even weirder, fringier, smarter, kinder, whatever than people in your age cohort. You don’t know about the refugee, the ace baker, the semi pro actor, the self taught philosopher, or the lifelong martial artist behind the graying hair and bifocals.

    1. Tiffany Aching*

      Yes! I’m in HR and am the youngest on my team by nearly 10 years, and the only one without children. But we all get along great and I would call most of them friends, some of us even hang out outside of work. It’s a great suggestion to lean in to the other HR coworkers, regardless of age.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        A great advantage of working in a company or org is that you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise ever bump into. They can have valuable viewpoints since they have different experience. (and more experience when they’re older)

    2. allathian*

      Great comment! I love the fact that in my team we have people in their 20s (if only barely) and in their 60s, and every decade in between.

      I don’t work in HR, and I don’t go to work to make friends, but I really appreciate the friendly, professional relationships I have with my coworkers.

  10. Elizabeth West*

    Yeah, this is tough. I’ve seen this advice not just from Alison but also from Suzanne Lucas. It’s just not a great idea; sorry, OP.

    One thing that might help is to cast your friend-making net wider than just at your job. I know we spend most of our day at work and it’s hard not to bond over company stuff. And I know some people have made lifelong friends at work, relationships that last well past the expiration date of the job. But often, they don’t. I’m not in HR but I’ve found this to be more true than not, at least in my experience. It’s a big factor in why I rarely hang out with coworkers—I keep a clear break between job time and personal time, a tactic that helped me survive a toxic workplace.

    If you want to stay in the HR field, you’ll need to maintain strong boundaries. Focusing on keeping your personal friendships outside the company will help with that.

    1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

      I’ve been retired for almost ten years, and the friends I made at work are still my personal friends. Many of us stay in touch several times a week.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        You can absolutely make lifelong friends at work. I’m in touch with people I used to work with now that we’re no longer at those jobs. Two of them were my manager/supervisor. We’re not besties but we’re still supportive acquaintances. For the most part though, I don’t have ex-coworker buddies. People are thrown together at work and they bond over that, and when they’re no longer at the job, there’s little to keep the friendship going.

        It might have been partly due to my location. I had a really difficult time in OldCity finding any friends at all who shared my interests.

    2. TPS Reporter*

      One of my good friends is in HR and I’m a manager of a big team, at completely separate organizations. It’s nice that we can share with each other and commiserate on all of the drama without implicating our own co-workers. I know that she feels a little trapped and wants to vent sometimes. She never tells me the names of anyone or any identifying information, just very general scenarios.

      The thought of any HR employee or manager talking about anything they know my personal life to any of my co-workers is so horrifying, even if completely accidental. The stakes are very high, I agree that it’s a firm responsibility of HR and management to keep ourselves out of the work social circles.

  11. Quinalla*

    I am not in HR, but did have a warm, but still professional relationship with our former heat of HR (about 150 people in the company, so our only HR person). There were times when she would tell me after something had been announced that she had to keep her lips zipped around me and others, similar to when managers know information ahead of time and can’t share yet even though a perfect conversation opportunity arises. But even more important since HR is handling a lot of sensitive information and is the person you should go to in case of harassment, etc. She has since moved onto another job and now we are true friends, but she still keeps thing confidential about my company/her former company that she should, but until she left there was always a distance we maintained.

    If you don’t have other HR employees at your firm, reach out outside of your firm to organizations, etc. I am in more of a management role now myself and have found that getting a small group of professional peers outside of my company has been good for many reasons. Sometimes you want to “talk shop” and not bore your friends, a professional peer group is great for this. You still have to be careful with confidentiality of course, but you can speak high level/general enough usually and still get some helpful advice/feedback.

  12. Sara without an H*

    This is yet another argument for cultivating a life outside the office and NOT relying on coworkers to meet your social needs. Yes, it can be hard work and it takes time to build those connections, but it’s really beneficial in the long run.

  13. LizM*

    For what it’s worth, in addition to the very real professional impacts that Alison lays out, having access to the info you have can really strain friendships.

    I’m not HR, but I moved from being staff on one team to managing a different team. I thought because my old team wasn’t in my chain of command, I could still be friends with them. However, in my new role as part of the team of managers and because I’m no longer in the union, I have access to confidential information that impacts them.

    It really stunk to know this info and not be able to share it, and it stunk more when it was made public, and they came to me to ask why I didn’t tell them it was coming, and it changed the dynamics of our friendship in a way that is probably irreversible. Even if you make the right professional choice, you will have friends who don’t understand why you put your professional obligations over their interests.

    1. Joielle*

      Yeah, I think in a lot of cases where HR (or management) friendships with other employees has worked out, it’s because there’s never been a situation where it would be a real conflict, like the one you describe. If the organization doesn’t have much drama or turnover, no layoffs or mergers, nobody’s underperforming or needs to take medical leave, etc – it could be fine, because that kind of conflict just wouldn’t arise. But the second a person gets fired or demoted and you knew about it first, it’s a problem.

  14. Teapot Repair Technician*

    I think it depends on what you mean by “friends at work.”

    My “friends at work” are people I’m happy to see everyday and chat with at lunchtime, but not people I would invite home or turn to for emotional support. If that’s the level of friendship you want, it may be possible to have that while remaining professional.

    (As long as you can get comfortable with keeping confidential information under you hat.)

    1. allathian*

      Yup, same. I’m friendly but professional with everyone. Well nearly everyone, there are a few who’ve behaved so badly towards me in the past that I stick to coolly professional with them, and don’t talk to them at all unless it’s directly related to work. When I’m at the office, there are a few people I enjoy going to lunch with, and a group I spend most of my coffee breaks with. But I don’t hang out with them outside of work or ask for emotional support from them.

  15. Just my thoughts*

    Hate to say it, but as someone who’s been in HR for a while, I’d say generally no – having friends in other departments is a disaster waiting to happen. You can be friendly and have good work relationships, but watch out for things outside of work. I’d also recommend not friending co-workers on Facebook. You’ve already experienced the discomfort of knowing something that may negatively affect people you hang out with. Imagine what it will feel like if there’s an impending layoff and you know before those affected. Or, as in my case, you have to bring something up that friend has done and you advise that they should be disciplined or fired and the manager shares that with friend and friend refuses to talk to you ever again.

  16. BlueBelle*

    I view my job in HR like a therapist/doctor/lawyer- What I know is confidential and can not be shared with anyone. I am friendly with people in y company outside of my HR colleagues but I don’t share information with them, that is a huge no!

  17. DivineMissL*

    I’ve spent the last 20 years as EA to various C-suite executives. Since I’ve always been privy to confidential information, I’ve had to maintain a social distance from my co-workers; we’re friendly, and I’m closer to some than others, but I still can’t cross that line into being actual friends with any of them. It’s unfortunate sometimes, but necessary in order for me to do my job properly. My real friends are outside of work.

  18. Leanne*

    I work in HR, and yeah it can be tough! I work for a big organization with a big HR department. That makes it easier. I have a friend who works in the organization that I knew prior to getting hired. Our jobs never intersect, and we even work in different buildings. I am also lower then her on the organization hierarchy, and there are plenty of layers between us. I’m grateful for all the check and balances because it makes it nearly impossible for me to grant her any kind of special treatment (not that ever would). This organization is the largest employer in our city, so it would probably be impossible not to know anyone else here.

  19. xeronic*

    I don’t know, I’ve always held positions that gave me a lot of access to a lot of information that my peers at work didn’t have, and I’ve always been able to cultivate and maintain non-problematic friendships. Jobs like that don’t have the same power differential that a manager has, so it does feel different to me.

    The key I think is really strong boundaries. Anyone I’m friends with at work knows there are things I know that I can’t tell them. And I won’t tell them. Anyone who’s pushy or resentful about that isn’t someone I’m compatible with as a friend, so anything that would result in a problem kind of naturally dies on the vine, in my experience.

    I think the other thing is that it’s way more important not to have “not-friends” at work. I generally try to be friendly and warm with every single person in my office – I think it’s way more damaging to have a category of people you’re closer with if you also have a category of people you’re cold or hostile towards. If everyone you work with has experienced you as approachable, warm, fair and basically on their side when they need you, they tend to not be insecure about you putting other people ahead of them or acting out of your own biases.

    I definitely understand in theory why “just don’t” is probably the best blanket advice, but I’ve seen it work well in reality.

    1. knitcrazybooknut*

      This has been my experience as well. I’ve worked in private and public sector jobs, and some of the general population just hates HR on general principles — so that’s a thing. But if I’m nice and helpful to everyone regardless, then being friends or becoming closer with some employees wasn’t a big deal.

      I totally agree that NO TALKING WHATSOEVER about confidential stuff is a solid rule, regardless, and if someone gets snippy about that, they don’t really understand my job and I can’t be friends with them anyway.

      The nature of HR jobs is that you usually develop close relationships with those in HR. They understand the pressures and conflicts in HR best, and that shared pressure can create good relationships and sometimes friendships from that experience.

      To me, the rules about hiring friends apply here: Could you fire the person if you had to?

    2. Despachito*

      This is something I am asking myself as well:

      I have a similar real-life experience as you – my significant other managed a long-time friend, and they were both able to keep it very professional (I suspect there were many coworkers who did not even know that they were friends outside work).

      I think key to this was what you are saying – they both were very much able to draw a line between their private life and work, the friend would never expect, let alone require, any preferential treatment, and for my partner it is outside any question to cross any professional line, not even for a friend (as opposed to the fact that he would be very helpful outside work – he would willingly lend a car or money to his friend but never reveal to her any confidential work information).

      I’d therefore be inclined to think that it is not always impossible to manage your friend, but it requires from both parties a degree of integrity which is not common to be found, and hence the blanket no-no policy.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, and to avoid even the appearance of favoritism, it can work only if the rest of the org is largely unaware of the friendship, and the employee is a good or great employee, unlikely to ever be fired for cause. But if they do screw up, the manager has to fire them, even while recognizing that this will almost certainly also mean the end of the friendship.

  20. HMM*

    I was this LW five years ago and developed good friendships with people outside of my team as an HR coordinator. I was always clear: “nope I can’t talk about that” and also “what you say to me isn’t necessarily in a cone of silence” and they were good about respecting that. I was also just pretty good at being able to discern what needed to be surfaced because it was a Real Issue and what was just run of the mill stuff that would pass. My bosses knew I was friendly with them and if anything regarding their performance or jobs came up, I would recuse myself. It worked out just fine and we’re still friends to this day. But in general, HR can be a lonely job (especially if you’re an HR department of one) and you DO need a certain level of detachment to be able to perform the job successfully at higher levels. As a director now, I’m more distant by necessity and it doesn’t bother me; it’s just part of the job.

    1. xeronic*

      yes! glad you worked it out. I’ve always been in similar positions where I have way more information than my peers, and while I understand how close friendships can lead to problems (and have seen it happen like that first hand for some coworkers), once you get a feel for where the boundaries are and get yourself and your friends used to respecting them, it’s not really that tricky to navigate.

  21. Keep Your Distance*

    As the director in a small office environment (and relatively new to being the top person), this was the biggest mistake I made early on. There were long term employees that I wanted to try to get to know and instead of keeping it only professional, I starting engaging in the daily gossip about their lives. I truly regret it now because I had to deal with a lot of disciplinary issues in Week 2! The prior director had done nothing to stop some really bad behaviors. I wish I could go back to my first year here and start over.

    After 6 years here now, I am much better at staying out of people’s personal lives or repeating what someone has told me. It takes discipline but it definitely makes the work/life balance easier.

    I would suggest to you to find friends elsewhere.

  22. Jellissimo*

    Working in HR you get to be friendly, but not friends. It’s basically needlepointed onto pillows. Sorry.

    1. Recruited Recruiter*

      This is exactly what I was looking to see. My spouse’s employer tried to recruit me for an HR position, which I turned down.

      As an HR DoO, I occasionally have to be out and about, taking a look at company morale. I learn a lot about the employees of the company, but they know only very superficial things about me. I am well liked at work, but choose not to do any outside work things with co-workers except company functions.

      At previous employers, prior to my HR career, I chose to not be friends with people within my department.

  23. BlueBelle*

    This kind of thing is why I insist that everyone in my HR department has training and certifications in HR. Just being good with people isn’t enough. So many HR departments are staffed with people who don’t know about talent, development, the laws, policies, etc.

  24. awesome3*

    Does this one have an update? I’d love to know if they became friends with the other HR staff, or joined an intermural kickball team, or what have you

      1. Me*

        I dont’ think that’s the LW. I believe they are saying 5 years ago they could have been the LW writing this in.

  25. Ana Gram*

    You can! I’m friends with the internal affairs supervisor and we just have an unspoken rule that we don’t talk about his cases. It was a little awkward at first but there’s so much to chat about that it’s really not an issue. Family, travel, funny work stories, tv shows, restaurants (ok, some of these are more relevant pre-covid), you get the drift. It takes a minute to get the hang of the new “rules” but it’s easy after awhile.

  26. Meghan*

    I think there’s two issues here: appearance of impartiality, and being a good steward of company assets (in OP’s case, information).
    If OP was in the R&D department and couldn’t help but blurt out confidential information, that would present a problem.
    Same for HR. OP is party to confidential information, and needs to respect that confidentiality regardless of who her friends are.

    1. HrDpt1*

      Right, and not just appearance of impartiality, but to aid in your ability to actually be impartial. The more you know about someone outside of their job performance and work habits, the more it can affect your opinion when you have to advise on actions of any kind. Help yourself by keeping your knowledge “work related and consistent with business necessity” as much as you can. I co-sign on the above poster who avoids co-workers’ Facebook.

  27. Khatul Madame*

    If the LW is in her first HR job, she needs to get a mentor, stat. She is actually fortunate in that she is part of the department, not a sole HR person in the company, so she needs to build relationships with her colleagues. Even if they are (gasp) older and have different lifestyles. If she must talk about the confidential stuff, HR colleagues are a more suitable audience and can help, over time, correct the LW’s behavior wrt to sharing.

    1. Clisby*

      Right. This wasn’t the situation the LW wrote about, but suppose she knew a friend at work had been offered a new job, and was considering it. And then she found this friend was on the list of people who might be laid off. If she even *thought* seriously of telling the friend this, she doesn’t belong in HR.

      1. allathian*

        HR exist to protect the interests of the employer, first and foremost. That’s why so many people look askance at HR employees. Sure, good HR also helps employees e.g. deal with discrimination, but only because it’s in the long-term interests of the employer to avoid litigation. They don’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Sure, many organizations do more than the legal minimum, but that’s because the C-suite wants it that way.

        I don’t want to face dilemmas like that, which is a big reason why I’m not in HR.

  28. Elliot*

    When I started at my company, there was an HR woman who did NOT care for me. She had a variety of friends throughout the company and made it publicly known that I was “hard to deal with” and unlikable, and it was hard to recover from that. I was new to working and straight out of college, and the idea that HR was a safe place to go about discrimination, major life issues, etc was immediately shattered by an HR rep that was too friendly with other employees. When she left the company, she actually told ALL her “HR” dirt to a mutual friend.

  29. Me*

    Sorry OP but if it’s any consolation, I learned a long time ago to be real real cautious with work friendships and I don’t work in HR.

    People are usually on their best behavior at work and you are only seeing a very small side of them. I’ve made friends only to realize they are a whole pile of messy outside work.

    Obviously other people will feel differently, but I personally do not make friends at work. Friendly? Sure. Occasional work happy hour? Sure. But that’s it.

    1. HrDpt1*

      Right on, Me. Sometimes this stance makes me feel like an ogre at work, but I think its the best for me, too.

    2. Tomalak*

      “I’ve made friends only to realize they are a whole pile of messy outside work”

      Does that mean you can’t be friends? It might not be a reason to loan them money or something, but this sounds harsh.

      I would say, though, that few of my work friendships survive once one or both of us have left the company. What we mainly had in common was the same colleagues, clients and office gossip. That can be nice while it lasts.

      1. Me*

        Having boundaries isn’t harsh. I don’t owe anyone my firendship. Nor do I engage in office gossip as a bonding experience.

        Harsh would be refusing to associate with people which I’m not suggesting. I’m friendly. I choose to maintain strict work/life boundaries. I have plenty of friends outside of work. I’m not interested in building relationships with people that have the potential to make the place I have to be 5 days a week awkward or uncomfortable. I’m not interested in building relationships that result in work infringing on my valued private time. I won’t date coworkers either – do you think that’s harsh?

        1. Clisby*

          I don’t think it’s harsh – although I did meet my now husband at work. But we worked for a company of maybe 1500 people, did not work in the same department, could go an entire week without laying eyes on each other, and neither of us was in any kind of job (like HR) dealing with confidential information.

          If we had worked in a company of 100, I do not think I would ever have dated him.

    3. allathian*

      Yeah, I’m pretty much the same way. I’m not saying that I suspect my coworkers are up to nefarious stuff or are horrible people outside of work, I just find that it’s more pleasant for me to work with people if I don’t know too much about them. That doesn’t mean I’m unfriendly at work, though, or never talk about non-work things with any of them. Before the pandemic I went to the occasional happy hour and company party, and enjoyed spending time with my coworkers in less formal circumstances, but in general I’m not interested in spending my leisure time with my coworkers. Some I’m more friendly with than others, but they’re all situational acquaintanceships that fade away when the big thing we have in common, work, changes for one of us. I’m also fairly introverted, and don’t have the energy or motivation to maintain a large network of friends and acquaintances.

      One thing that I really appreciate about WFH is that it’s pretty much eliminated all forms of office gossip, at least at my job. I wasn’t keen on it even at the office, but now there’s been no sign of it for 18 months.

  30. Gracely*

    LW, some people in HR can have work friends. But from what you’ve written in here, it sounds like *you* probably shouldn’t. Not until you learn how to have and be comfortable with the appropriate boundaries.

    If you really, really want work friends, look for work friends in your HR team; then at least you should be privy to the same info and won’t have to worry about that aspect of it.

  31. Luna*

    I will also add that if you become friends with your co-workers, you may be put in a position where you have to discipline them, lay them off, or even fire them. HR is sometimes a lonely place to be!

  32. Tomalak*

    Even if work is not the impetus, I strongly agree that being able to have friendships with people in different age groups can be a surprisingly big thing. Sure, if someone is always leaving at 5.30 to rush home to look after their kids you may not become close, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be close to other people their age, or older. I remember when I was in my late 20s realising I was capable of it, being glad of it, and wondering why I ever thought otherwise.

    1. nothing rhymes with purple*

      In the US I’ve found a lot of age stratification in society, starting with school grades and going onwards. And there seems to be an attitude that no one would be interested in a friendship with someone younger than they are unless it’s a cover for predation. Entertainingly, one counter I found to this was in church, where under strict parameters (such as the “women’s fellowship”, planning events, etc) young people could have social relationships with older people.

      1. Agnes*

        I’m not sure why this is “entertaining”. I find one of the big advantages to belonging to a church is that it brings together people across the age spectrum.

    2. allathian*

      Yeah, it’s something I really admire, although I’ll frankly admit that all of my closest friends have been fairly close to my age. My youngest friends are about 6 or 7 years younger than me, and correspondingly my oldest friends are older than me by about the same amount, but my core group of friends I’ve known since middle school, and they were either in my grade or a year younger…

      A former coworker who retired a few years ago, and who incidentally is the closest thing to a work friend becoming a friend outside work as well, is the kind of person who at 70 has friends who are anything from 20 years older than she is to 40 years younger. I really admire that. But then, she’s the kind of extrovert who can be friends with someone she likes after a 5-minute conversation. Luckily for me, she realized that I needed a bit longer than that to warm up to friendship level. She’s the only person at my job who I’ve kept in touch with after they left, even if it’s only an email twice a year.

  33. Daisy-dog*

    I didn’t read every comment, but I don’t think this advice has come up yet. If you are a Dept of One, then you can try to find online communities of HR individuals. There are lots of message boards where you can chat about work things (for advice or to learn) as well as to become friends.

  34. First time listener, long time caller*

    “you can’t really have real friendships with co-workers outside of HR because of the potential for conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest”

    This makes zero sense. HR people interact with HR in the same way as any other employee. If Alison really believes this no-friend policy, then it has to apply between HR employees as well.

    1. Ellie Rose*

      No, because they have access to the same information already and have (or should have) the same relevant training on confidentiality etc.

      Of course there are awkward exceptions like a poor performer within HR going on a PIP, but generally if one person in HR knows something, everyone knows.

      They have access to the same files and have to sometimes coordinate on sensitive work like employees going on FMLA.

      1. First time listener, long time caller*

        Where I work there are many levels of HR and in large HR departments you will inevitably have low-performers. It’s maybe less of an issue in a 2-3 person group.

  35. Original LW*

    Oh hey, this is my letter!! Super weird to see this from a five-years-later lens, but I have some updates for the commentariat:
    1- Yes, I am still working in HR.
    2- No, I haven’t committed any “fireable offenses”, as some people have insinuated. The information I shared early on in my career (referenced in this letter) was not super confidential, it was just something that particular manager was secretive about for personal (non-business) reasons. I’m seen as someone super trustworthy in my organization.
    3- On that note, I’ve received only glowing feedback from managers, and actually got an off-cycle promotion to a more senior title with a MASSIVE salary increase earlier this year.
    4- I do have people at work I consider my friends, but they’re ONLY within the HR department. With everyone else, I’m friendLY for sure (love that distinction), but I keep my personal friendships to the HR team and outside of work.

    I’ve weathered a couple different experiences at a couple different companies and am really proud of what I’ve learned and accomplished. HR is definitely not for everyone, but I still really love it! Thanks Alison for this super clear advice when I needed it most.

    1. TPS Reporter*

      That’s great to hear! HR seems like a tough profession, often being the bearer of bad news and having difficult conversations. At the same time I appreciate that you take your confidentiality responsibilities very seriously.

    2. ShinyPenny*

      Thanks for the update! And congratulations– this is like a Friday Good News share, and I am applauding your success! Lots to be proud of in 5 years of progress. You may have been new back then, but you knew what you didn’t know, you knew where to get good advice, and you clearly kept learning and growing ever since. Awesome!

    3. Just my thoughts*

      I made a mistake early in my 20s sharing with a former employee (who had supervised me at one time) that he was marked in our system as not eligible for rehire. My then boss explained why I shouldn’t have done that, why they shouldn’t have put me in that position (as a director, they knew better) , and why she was going to write me up. It turned out to be a hard learning experience, but I’m glad I got to experience it with something that wasn’t “fireable”. Fast forward to today, and staff love working with me because I’m compassionate and hugely confidential especially when it comes to medical information. Sounds like you were able to make a similar mistake, learn from it, and become a great HR professional!

  36. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    It is never a bad idea to build a solid social network outside of your job. Jobs do not last forever, and our needs for friendship and connection are there no matter what. Volunteer, get involved with a religious group, take up hobbies, get to know your neighbors. (Or, if you’re in Washington, get a dog.) You’ll be a happier and more balanced person, and better able to maintain healthy boundaries in the office.

  37. Ellie Rose*

    Our head of recruiting struggles with this issue, and her strategy has been to pick a friends as far away from potential conflict of interest as possible and wouldn’t be affected by most confidential info she has — basically, the strategy Alison recommended, though I’m not in HR.

    I’m one of very few people who knows most things she does already and is *not* a hiring manager. There’s not much either of us could do to help or harm the other related to work and few confidentiality issues.

    We still have to be careful talking about work, but in 5 years of friendship, she’s never let anything slip, and the only thing I’ve ever told her was something I would have shared even if we had NOT been friends because it was relevant, non-confidental info she needed to do her job that many people were (unnecessarily) afraid to say. She proved my trust in her professionalism with how she handled it.

    It’s tough and lonely sometimes for her.

  38. Carlie*

    Also, for everyone else – don’t be that person that the HR staff can’t even be friendLY with because you keep trying to wheedle information out of them. It’s a lot easier to be friends-ish when the other person isn’t constantly asking questions, or watching for you to slip up, or leading you down a conversation trail to try to get to information. I’m not in HR, but I have had positions where I had to be confidential, and there were some people I just couldn’t talk to at all because it got old fast.

    1. Can Can Cannot*

      I’ve seen that strategy work at multiple companies. It sure is effective at removing any possible conflicts.

  39. Hmm*

    Rep. OP, it’s one thing to have work friends – another entirely to have friends you feel you have to share confidential information with because they are your friends. I’ve generally been in roles where I’m “in the know” for the last 10+ years – I also have lots of friends and colleagues at work, some of whom I am fairly close with. None of them would EVER expect me to disclose things to them ahead of everyone else, and all of them assume I knew about things ahead of time when there are major announcements (layoffs, org changes, etc.). The only time I could ever imagine being conflicted is if I became aware of significant corporate-wide layoffs, and only then because my mom works for another department and it would be hard to not tell her to brace herself – but even then, she would understand that I couldn’t tell her.

    All to say that I think OP is seeing this as something you “owe” to friends, but it’s absolutely possible to have friendships without disclosing everything you know. And if you can’t do that, then you definitely can’t have work friends, because you are giving them an unfair advantage and putting your job at risk. Not to mention you’ll never know if people are actually your friends or just like the access to information. Even worse, because you seem to tend to be friends with people in the same life phase as you, you’re giving an unfair advantage to certain groups as well. The job is a perfect example – it might seem like nothing, but it might have also given someone extra time to prepare to apply, or at least advance knowledge of some other change (someone quitting, a new position being created, org change, etc).

    (p.s. realizing now this is a 5 year old letter so take my comments with a grain of salt – my response is more if someone reading is going through something similar now).

  40. Spleen*

    HR falls under my remit at work and grandboss actually listed in my annual review that they thought I should have much closer friendships with work colleagues (for whom I’m their HR person) and socialise with them inside/outside of work. My colleagues are lovely people but I think the boundary is important – I don’t feel good going to their place for bbq and then haunting them up a few days later for alleged conduct violations! I should note I work in a very dysfunctional workplace…

  41. kate*

    Hi, OP! I totally understand the appeal of getting to work in HR with employee relations and development because helping employees allows you to really connect with them on a higher professional level. I absolutely loved that aspect of HR when I was in a HR Generalist role. But one of the first things that my manager/mentor superstar told me was, “Different rules apply for you. You can’t have friends at work the same way others can. Oh, and we’ll (unintentionally) kill the vibe at office happy hours.”

    Overall, she was correct. It had to be different, but the degree to which that applied to us was impacted by the terrible, horrible boss we worked for and the toxic environment he created. I ended up leaving because I could not recruit people to work at that awful place in good conscience. I wish I had known about AAM back then. I would have had some stories/questions!!

  42. Green Goose*

    Hi OP. This is hard, and the main reason I won’t be pursuing a career in HR because I do like having closer relationships with coworkers and would probably struggle in situations like the ones you mentioned. There is also a relatively large HR department at my organization and have seen them all struggle with these boundaries because our office is really chummy, friendly. One of my former coworkers had a close relationship with a former HR person and then found out that the same HR person did not approve a raise request (done through proper channels) and it ended their friendship. No one was in the wrong but it was unfortunate to see.

  43. Canadian Librarian #72*

    This is an excellent example of why there are differences between “work friends” and “friend friends”. With a work friend, you have to keep some professional difference, even if there isn’t the kind of inherent power dynamic an HR worker has with someone who works in a different department – it’s simply the smart thing to do. I wouldn’t go as far as saying “trust no one” at work, but the reality is that when your livelihood is on the line, you want to be careful with what info you disclose to someone you work with – even if they don’t mean to, they could let something slip that could impact your continued employment: this could be a misheard (and miscommunicated) comment, a rumour, something about your personal life, something about a previous job you held… It’s just smart to be careful, because of the inevitability of human error (yours and others’).

    I’ve had work friends who turned into real friends, but I was never able to be completely open with them about my feelings about work until we no longer worked together. This was still a warmer and closer relationship than I had with other people at work with whom I was friendly, but it wasn’t the same as someone I was friends with outside of work.

    I’ve also ended up working with someone I knew from outside of work and had been friends with for years. That situation was a bit different, because we knew and trusted each other totally, and there was no potential for competition or the development of a real power imbalance between us at work.

    Bottom line: exercise caution, be circumspect, and be mindful of the power you have over others (doesn’t matter if you don’t see it like that or don’t want that power – you have it either way). Concentrate on making friends outside the office, enjoy the collegial relationships you can have within the office, and open your mind a little about forming warm working relationships with people who are more than five years older than you. If you’re an adult, it shouldn’t be so difficult to find a way of relating to people who aren’t in your same generational cohort. I’m a millennial, but I’ve worked with plenty of Gen X and Boomers (and even a few Gen Z) who I’ve very much liked. Age has little to do with whether or not someone will be a good workmate, in my experience.

  44. HR & Cats*

    I’m a bit late to this but wanted to comment. I’ve worked in HR for about 10 years and believe strongly you can’t remain professional in your role while also having close friendships with others at the company, unless they also work in HR or in some cases management, usually senior management. Even with management/senior management you have to be careful but in some cases senior management as organizations has almost as much personnel information as HR so it can be ok – obviously use your judgement here. I do have 3 close friends I’ve made at work, 2 of whom worked in HR and one who was the COO of the organization. That doesn’t mean you can’t be warm or friendly – you should be those things – it’s ok to make small talk at work with everyone, regardless of level. But having non-work, non-small talk conversations on a regular basis is not ok, and hanging out outside of work with others not in HR is not ok. It’s very lonely and one of the reasons I’m considering transitioning out of HR.

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