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 is 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.
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.
In one of my career opportunities, I was providing HR counsel to a few of the organization’s departments. 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 area 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; it quickly became a very dear friendship of mine.
One HR issue in particular that Elaine and I expended much energy handling was the termination of an employee. Elaine was participatory in each step toward eliminating this employee 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 the employee’s termination. But when she shared it with me, she insisted that I not only disregard it, but 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. 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, I met with Elaine and conveyed to her the weight of what she had asked of me. Put simply, I explained that I could not let our personal confidences contaminate our professional relationship. To date, it stands as the toughest conversation I’ve ever had in a career often saturated with hard, life changing conversations.
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, 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.