The HR function is inherently human. When working on employee benefits, payroll, and talent management, you’re bound to touch on several personal points that employees may not otherwise share with coworkers. It can be hard to avoid a more personal relationship with employees who confide in you. However, it is important to be aware of the boundaries that separate HR from any other type of employee friendship.
We asked our network of experts to share whether they think HR should (or should not) be friends with employees, and their experiences led us to these four tactics. Here’s how HR professionals can balance professionalism with friendliness:
1. Establish Clear Boundaries
Often you don’t realize you need boundaries until they’ve already been crossed. However, you can save yourself a lot of headache by thinking through these boundaries from the onset. As you form work relationships, clearly establish boundaries in your mind to guide your behavior and communicate them to your peers as needed.
Human Resources Consultant for Burr Consulting LLC, Matthew Burr, experienced a situation where his superior pursued a friendship that impacted their work relationship. “When I was working as an HR Manager at a paper mill, my boss always invited me to different social events. I went once, but declined all future invitations. He was clearly a little offended by that, and actually brought it up during my performance review. I had to explain that it was nothing personal, but I like to keep a level of separation between my professional life and personal life.”
It can be hard to set boundaries (especially with superiors), but doing this from the start can help depersonalize actions that might otherwise offend. If you make it clear that you personally choose not to attend employee happy hours or participate in activities after hours, then it can help you sidestep uncomfortable situations.
Whatever boundaries you choose to set will likely differ depending on your company’s unique culture, but as a representative of the company, it’s important that HR sets their limits.
2. Don’t Play Favorites
A big hazard of HR-employee friendships is promoting a sense of employee favoritism. If HR has tight-knit friendships with certain individuals, it may seem like they are given more opportunities and less discipline than their peers. Not to mention, HR may inevitably have to deliver difficult news to an employee who they consider a friend.
”Both parties must be mature enough to understand that your professional roles take priority and if that an employee steps out of line, you will have to step in with your HR hat on and do your job,” explains Pamela Shand, MS, CPRW, and CEO of Offer Stage Consulting. “I’ve seen this cause issues when that understanding is not there. The employee doesn’t expect the HR Manager to hold them accountable for their actions and when that happens, they take it personally. If you as an HR leader are concerned about that, then avoid making friends at work. It’s best to maintain your professionalism and not risk your reputation over a friendship.”
It’s quite common for HR to develop close friendships, and if you fall into that group, don’t forget that your HR responsibilities may put you in a challenging situation.
3. Avoid Gossip
As an agent of HR, it’s your job to set an example for employee behavior and report on any conduct that goes against office policy. Most employees are conscious of the fact that HR is not the place for rumors, but if you have friends across the company, you may encounter gossip. As a rule, beware of employee gossip and always be ready to respond as HR.
Caroline Siemers, owner of Corplandia Communications, recalls the moment she realized she couldn’t be both an agent of HR and a personal friend. “I was working in a position that ultimately rolled up to HR. I had friends across the company, and one day I went to lunch with one. She mentioned inappropriate behavior going on in the team, but said she didn’t want to stir the pot. I went back to my manager who told me that I had to report it. I realized then that I am an agent of HR at every single lunch I attend. I hadn’t thought of myself that way before, but it taught me how to be an employee advocate without being a friend.”
HR is the morale compass of the company. This doesn’t have to mean HR is the bad guy or the “Principal’s office,” but HR should set an example for employee behavior.
4. Be Personal
While the need for maintaining boundaries is clear, it is also important that HR is human. “There are plenty of ways to be warm, open, and caring while maintaining professional boundaries of respective roles,” says Shand. Striking this balance matters. It is important to ensure that HR is empowered in their role, while also approachable to employees.
According to Shand, HR’s number one priority is to listen and consider the employee’s best interests. “I was interviewing a candidate who wanted to move up into a higher role. The candidate broke down and shared a lot of personal details about a divorce she was going through. Her desire to get the new role came out of a financial need rather than a readiness for the role. I heard her out, but ultimately had to consider her long-term success, not just give her a new job. I know this isn’t what she wanted to hear, but I had to do what’s best for her. It’s about finding that happy medium between being professional and being human.”
On the flipside, HR Florida State Council President, Lynnette Holsinger, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, GPHR, believes that with the right balance HR and employees can form meaningful friendships. “I’ve had an associate for over ten years who wanted to pursue a career in HR. I’ve taken her under my wing and helped coach and mentor her in her career. She knows I have her back and am always there to listen to her.”
Holsinger advises that despite having meaningful relationships, it’s still important to be aware of your HR responsibilities, “Just because I have her back personally and professionally doesn’t mean we’re hanging out on weekends. You can create an environment of professionalism and still let employees know you care.”
Interpersonal relationships are a natural part of work, but as an agent of HR it’s essential to strike that balance of friendliness and professionalism. There is no clear cut formula, but setting boundaries without forgetting your human qualities is a great place to start.