I like people. I like helping people. I like having people over to my house for dinner. In fact, just last night I had Kate Bischoff and her kids over for dinner. Kate's a work colleague and a friend. It was fabulous.

But if you're an HR person, you absolutely, positively, should not have people in your client groups over for dinner. If you answer yes to any of the following questions about someone at work, you should never build a friendship with them.

  • Will I ever have to weigh in on a promotion or raise for this person or any person in their department?
  • Will I ever have to participate in disciplinary decisions for this person or any person in their department?
  • Will I ever have to help determine who in this person's group to lay off?
  • If something bad happens, would I be involved in conducting the investigation of this person's department?
  • Do I help influence hire/fire decisions in this person's department?

If you answer yes to any of these, you are setting yourself up for a conflict of interest. You may think, "Oh, I can always be fair. I'd never let a friendship get in the way of making a business decision." And let's assume that you are super-human, and your own emotions wouldn't influence you. Fine. 

It doesn't matter.

Why? Because the perception is still there. "I see Jane just got promoted to Senior Analyst. She's totally best friends with the HR manager. That's probably why she got identified as a high-potential employee."

No matter how fair you are, and no matter how well you've documented the reason for your decisions, if you're friends (or worse, romantically involved) with an employee, every decision around that employee will be tainted.

So, while many of us go into HR because we like people, we need to learn to set boundaries early. We need to find our friendships either within the HR department or outside of work. 

Now, in a large company, you may have a situation where your friends or spouse work for the same company, and that's fine, as long as you don't have responsibility over them. For instance, if you're the HR manager over manufacturing and your husband is in marketing, that's fine. But if you get promoted, so that you're the head of all HR, he'll either need to find a new job, or you'll need to turn down the promotion. Unfair, as you've earned it, right? Of course. But that is part of the job.

It doesn't matter that HR is never the final decision maker when it comes to hiring, firing, promotions, etc. You cannot be a true business partner if you cannot give untainted advice. 

So, why would I have a colleague over for dinner? Well, simple. I'm self-employed. She's self-employed. We don't have any influence over each other's jobs. We do, however, support each other in our individual professional goals. And that's how it should be.