BY ALLIE HOFER
Regardless of our specific fields, we all have experience with personal relationships in the workplace. Anywhere from the daily exchange of a cheesy colloquialism to a close friendship cultivated over years of working together, it’s inevitable that the line between personal and professional will be blurred and the two sectors will intertwine. After all, the meshing of these worlds is how we successfully integrate work and life, right?
Though some personal office relationships may sustain our working selves by enhancing the work day or even making an otherwise miserable job bearable, these connections have the potential to cause harm, too. Most office “gossip” that can circulate when coworkers become chummy tends to be superficial, fleeting, and, even if grounded in truth, irrelevant to the professional operation of the company. On the other hand, a seemingly innocuous comment about office personnel or policy — even when made under friendly, supposedly “off the record” circumstances — can have consequences that extend beyond the original sharer and listener, depending on the positions of the two friends involved.
When one participant in an intimate conversation centered on work topics happens to be an HR representative, the stakes are suddenly raised, jeopardizing both job and friendship alike. Here’s one example from my career in HR of a relationship compromised by the complicated overlap of professional and personal lives.
In one of my positions, I was in charge of a few of the company’s departments, the heads of which would come to me for any HR support they needed. Elaine* was head of my largest department, a faithful Christian and young mom with whom I immediately bonded. We found ourselves together quite often, as her department had many challenging employee situations, which led to opportunities for professional development. Each of our meetings further developed a strong friendship between us, and much of our time at work diverged into dialogue about our lives outside of the company, including very personal details.
One HR issue in particular that Elaine and I expended much energy handling was the termination of an employee named Stewart*. Given the endless nuances of the firing protocol, the whole ordeal stretched out over a year, which placed Elaine and me together for frequent discussions. She, of course, was participatory in each step toward eliminating Stewart and appeared to believe in his culpability, yet she never acted fully in support or in favor of expediting the process. During one of my meetings with Elaine, she presented some additional evidence that would help to build the case for Stewart’s termination, evidence that he himself brought to her. But when she shared it with me, she insisted I disregard it, and, on top of that, keep it secret from my boss. Talk about a mic drop! This conversation was riddled with the crossing of boundaries and the uncomfortable entanglement of personal and professional.
The fact that Stewart had willingly surrendered this evidence to Elaine proved that he trusted her and did not see her as a threat to his job. And Elaine’s request to keep it under wraps established that she was not as committed to his termination as we had thought, her professional discernment most likely clouded by personal convictions. Now consider how Elaine’s and my friendship influenced a work situation that should have been unadulterated by “life.” Would she have asked me so casually to breach policy had we not been such close confidants in the personal arena?
After taking some time to deliberate and chat it over with my husband, who also happens to be in HR, I met with Elaine and conveyed to her the weight of what she had asked of me. Put simply, I could not let our personal confidences contaminate our professional relationship. It’s a tough conversation to have, especially female to female. And ever since then, we’ve grown apart, and our friendship was forever changed.
How this experience has impacted my career:
This experience, though emotionally painful at the time, was crucial in solidifying my career choice and assuring me that HR is the right fit for me. In order to survive in this department, you must be willing and able to draw the imperative line between personal relationships and your professional responsibility to protect all employees’ jobs and the company at large. Sharing how I handled the above situation has instilled trust in the managers of my subsequent positions, serving as proof that I place loyalty to my job in front of office relationships. Every time I deal with an employee, this story comes to mind and inspires me to uphold my professional commitments and prioritize personal issues accordingly.
What you should learn from my story:
- Whether you work in HR and are close to some of your fellow employees, are friends with someone in your company’s HR department, or you connect with a seemingly neutral office pal, be extremely mindful of what you say and do in the workplace. Do not let emotion rule, and think carefully through each word you speak and action you take with every person you interact with — especially when it comes to email.
- Forgiveness is not as free-flowing in the workplace as it is within personal relationships. Irrational, careless mistakes made in the heat of the moment will follow you and have the potential to jeopardize your career.
- Many scenarios will arise that force you to choose between your the personal and the professional. Remember that your job is not the only one at stake, and be sure not to endanger anyone else’s career for the sake of maintaining your own job or a relationship.
- Above all, do not to be afraid to have the tough conversations! Even though you will likely be uncomfortable and may suffer on a personal level, you will not regret doing what is right in the grand scheme, and you can rest easy knowing you were respectful, diplomatic, and professional.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.