Managing People

How HR Handles Work Friendships

August 28, 2019
November 7, 2023
Sulagna Misra
Lattice Team

There’s a lot of evidence that workplace friendships have a positive impact on employees. But having friendships at work can put human resources professionals in a tricky position, since close personal relationships can lead to conflicts of interest and damage your credibility as an HR person. To strike a balance between being friendly and keeping up professional boundaries, every HR person needs to decide for themselves if and when they can have work friends.

The business benefits to having friends at work.

Most people would argue that having work friends is a good thing. Gallup’s research “has repeatedly shown a concrete link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees expend in their job.” It makes sense: we spend more time at work than at home, and it’s natural to want to feel connected to others. SHRM points out the detriments of loneliness at work: “Lonelier workers perform more poorly, quit more often, and feel less satisfied with their jobs.” So, not only does having friends at work have an impact on performance, but employees not having them can actually hurt retention and overall employee satisfaction. 

SHRM has more to say on workplace friendships. According to the Chief Diversity Officer Leeno Karumanchery at Canadian consultancy firm Mesh Diversity, “feelings of inclusion” help energize employees, making them more likely to be generous and helpful. "In a work context, that motivates us to work harder for our teams and for our organization (i.e., longer hours, increased workload, a desire to 'make an impact')” he says. “In contrast, feelings of exclusion actually cause changes in brain functionality, leading to diminished learning capacity, poor decision-making and an elevated threat response." So, employees are truly their best when they have friends at work. 

But for HR, workplace friendships can be tricky.

Everyone, including HR professionals, wants to be their best at work. So it would follow that they, too, should cultivate workplace friendships — except it’s not so easy. Human resources professionals have a large responsibility to other employees, and their business. Alison Green of Ask a Manager tells one reader asking whether they as an HR person can have friends at work: “People need to trust that they’ve been 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.” 

If employees perceive that you have a preference for a specific person in the office due to your friendship, any decision you make is tainted (and, further, any decision regarding that person, whether or not you even have a say in it). Suzanne Lucas breaks down all the situations in which you shouldn’t become friends with someone at work, including:

  • Having to weigh in on a promotion or raise for this person (or anyone else in their department)
  • Participating in any disciplinary decision for them or another member of their department
  • Determining layoffs that might take place in their group
  • Conducting, or being involved in conducting any investigations of this person’s department
  • Having influence over hiring and firing of personnel in their department

If your work friend gets a promotion, for example, even if they’re a solid performer who deserves it, someone will chalk it up to their having a personal relationship with someone in HR. Worse yet is the fact that some people won’t come to you if they think you’re friends with someone who’s causing trouble in the office. As Green puts it, “You don’t want someone who needs to report harassment hesitating because you’re friends with the harasser.” 

To have good relationships with coworkers, establish good boundaries for yourself and HR.

SHRM has some additional friendship advice for those HR professionals who may be the only person in their department, or who situationally may not be able to avoid all personal friendships with coworkers: 

1. Build a trusting but ultimately diplomatic network with all internal and external stakeholders. 

This is partly why, if you’re the first HR person at your company, we suggest meeting with everyone when you first get there. You should ideally have some kind of friendly connection with all your coworkers, even if it’s not a friendship. Your relationships with your coworkers will always be more defined by your common goal of helping the company achieve its goals, since that’s your job. That means it’s important to build and manage a relationship with most, if not all, of the company. You as HR need to be someone the employees of your company can trust. Being friendly and attentive helps you build that network.

2. Avoid emotionally close relationships. 

Which leads into the second point: those in human resources have to maintain some distance in their friendships at work. “Emotionally close” friendships — ones where you might share more than some light details about your personal life, or where you might spend time together outside of work, etc. — should be avoided if possible.

You can best understand how this boundary applies to you. If you can go to the gym with a few of your coworkers without becoming emotionally close, then by all means do so. But understand that going to the gym or to happy hour with coworkers is emotionally very different than going to someone’s wedding or birthday camping trip. If you’re at a loss as to how to define this boundary based on the situation, be honest with yourself in terms of how this might be seen by the rest of your coworkers. How might it affect your relationships with the coworkers whose gym or weddings or birthday parties you aren’t going to?

In another SHRM piece, Carole Robinson, owner of Ohio HR firm Check It Off, cautions that HR professionals aren’t there to like their coworkers: “It’s about understanding people, business practices and regulatory demands, as well as developing a culture that allows the business and the staff to thrive.” It’s great if you like your coworkers, but that’s not your function in the business.” 

Green, answering another HR person’s query about whether she can be friends with non-HR colleagues, says, “You can be friendly, yes. Warm and collegial, yes. But outside-of-work friendships? Not unless you’re extremely careful about navigating the boundaries…” So, only spending limited time with groups outside of work (such as the office happy hour) and limiting 1:1 social time with colleagues are generally wise moves. 

3. If you do have any close friendships with colleagues for whatever reason, excuse yourself from those situations that could seem to be a conflict. 

Basically, if you do have close friendships with coworkers, be honest about your bias. You might think you can work around it, but it’s better to be honest and recuse yourself.

Look for community and friendship elsewhere.  

Many people in human resources go into this profession because they like people, so this is can be tough to confront. That doesn’t mean you can’t make work friends! Green suggests finding friendships among “people who you can develop closer bonds with,” — as in, other HR people — even if you don’t seem to have a lot in common on paper. Lucas echoes this, saying, “We need to find our friendships either within the HR department or outside of work.” 

If you’re looking for a larger HR community, we recommend the Resources For Humans Slack community in particular.

A great goal as an HR person is to create a friendship-friendly workplace.

Finally, while HR may have to keep an amount of distance from coworkers for the sake of their role, they do have a vital role in workplace friendships: they can craft an environment where other employees are more likely to make work friends. SHRM mentions, “In addition to helping create opportunities for positive shared experiences, HR can educate employees about potential problems and help develop strategies to address sensitive issues.” Those opportunities, according to Patricia Sias, Ph.D., a professor of communications at the University of Arizona, can be designed by HR, or can come simply through encouraging people to work together on projects, shared tasks, and so on. 

Supporting other employees in their workplace friendships and giving them the tools to navigate any pitfalls allows HR professionals to create the kind of supportive workplace many employees need to flourish. 

SHRM points out that HR really sets the tone in the workplace: “By showing respect for, and interest in, the people you work with, you lay the foundation for high-quality relationships and encourage others to do the same. Ideally, the result is an environment where people enjoy working together and do their best.” 

HR plays a vital role in employee happiness, and the overall culture of the workplace. Even if you’re not there to make friends, you can help others do so, crafting a happier and more productive work environment.