A reader asks:
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?
The rules are different for you.
You can have pleasant, warm, friendly relationships, but 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. There are limits to how close you can get to people. You can do things like go to the occasional happy hour, but in general you should avoid hanging out with co-workers outside of work, especially one-on-one, and you can't develop the kind of emotional bonds that you might otherwise develop.
In addition to the very real conflicts that crossing those boundaries pose (see the examples in your letter), the appearance of impartiality is a big deal. You don't want someone who's being laid off wondering how it is that your friends happened to be spared (even if there were objective reasons for that). You don't want someone who needs to report harassment hesitating because you're friends with the harasser. You don't want someone like Erica realizing that you're friends with Nancy and Carter and wondering if she needs to worry about the confidentiality of her conversation with you.
You don't want people questioning your integrity or the integrity of your employer's processes.
These are similar to the boundaries that managers need to have in place with the people who report to them, and for the same reasons. People need to trust that they've being dealt with fairly and impartially. Even when you have the best of intentions, that's hard to pull off -- in reality and in appearance -- when friendships muddy the waters.
That's something that can make those jobs pretty lonely at times. One way to combat that is to seek out people who you can develop closer bonds with. In your case, that's other people in HR. I hear you that they're all older than you, but you can develop rewarding friendships with people who are in different life stages than you are if you don't get hung up on age. I'd use the fact that your options here are restricted as impetus to get past the age thing and see if you can find commonalities with them. There's nothing to lose by trying, at least, and it might make the necessary restrictions of working in HR easier to swallow.
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