HR Magazine - June 2000: Is HR Ever Off Duty

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Jun 1, 2000

How to walk a fine social line -- without losing your credibility or harjming the company's reputation.

At a company holiday party a woman dances with one of her husband’s co-workers. When she goes back to her seat, her jealous husband slaps her across the face. Should HR get involved?

An employee invites an HR staff member to a party. The employee says, “I don’t know how you feel about this, but there may be some marijuana use there.” The HR staff member decides not to attend the party but wonders, “Should I do anything based on my knowledge that other employees of the company did go to this party and probably were involved in some drug use?”

An employee begins “coming on” to a co-worker at a company-sponsored event and, later, tries to talk his way to her hotel room. Some other employees attempt to intervene and a fight breaks out. Nobody is injured, but HR wonders, “Are we obligated to address this issue?”

Read a typical HR job description and you will see items such as “responsible for overseeing employee benefits program,” and “responsible for development of compensation plan” or “responsible for managing organizational recruitment activities.” What’s missing is the widely held, yet frequently unstated, expectation that HR practitioners set a good example for other employees and uphold the values and reputation of the company—even outside the workplace.

Socializing with Employees—A Balancing Act

Is HR ever off duty? Opinions vary but, for many HR practitioners, the answer is an ambivalent “no.”

Just ask Ellen Johnston, human resources administrator at Davis Advertising Inc. in Philadelphia. Shortly after her promotion to HR in August 1998, she coordinated a “happy hour” for two departing employees and was promptly reprimanded. Her bosses, she says, made it very clear “that I am HR and I’m an agent of the company. I have to watch what I say around employees and what they say to me. I’m technically never ‘off the record.’”

Johnston is not alone. Other HR professionals also have found themselves faced with difficult decisions and new expectations when assuming HR roles.

Hollis Magill, SPHR, is human resources manager at Madeira County Community Action Agency (MCCAA) in Madeira, Calif. “A group of us used to go out on Fridays to have a drink after work, but it just isn’t something I would do any more,” Magill says. “I just want to keep that distinction.”

A position in HR does not necessarily mean you should never socialize with employees. As Debra Jones, SPHR, manager of HR at Interactive Intelligence in Indianapolis, points out, “There are benefits of socializing with employees in terms of building rapport.” But, she adds, “You have to be very judicious about the social settings you participate in. Employees are always looking at you. Being viewed as part of the team can be great, as long as the team is doing things that you want to be associated with.”

Even seemingly harmless socializing can create problems.

First, HR practitioners may run the risk of damaging their own reputations either because of something they have actually said or done, or because of employee perception. Second, they run the risk of observing employees engaged in questionable behavior—behavior that they may be ethically, even legally, called on to respond to.

“It’s a real balancing act,” says Wendy Bliss, SPHR, principal of Bliss and Associates, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based human resource consulting firm. “If you’re overzealous in reporting everything that goes on, you may have invasion of privacy issues. On the other hand, if you say, ‘I’m off work, they’re off work; so, nothing they do will ever be reported back in,’ you could create some potential legal exposure for the company.”

Shades of Gray

For HR professionals, socializing with employees, if done at all, must be done with a certain amount of self-control and a large amount of self-awareness. HR professionals may be sending the wrong message if they lose control at a party, or worse, engage in activities that are expressly prohibited by company policy or by the law. But, what responsibility do HR professionals have for responding to employees’ behavior outside the workplace?

Legal Issues. Matters of opinion aside, some concrete legal issues pertain directly to employee activities—and HR responses to those activities—even outside the workplace.

At a minimum, Bliss says, HR professionals should become familiar with the state and federal laws that pertain to their rights and responsibilities with regard to off-duty employee behaviors.

Many states, she says, have off-duty conduct statutes. For example, Colorado has a law that prohibits employers from discharging employees based on lawful off-duty conduct, unless it relates to a bona fide occupational requirement. And New York recently enacted a legal activities law that affects both public and private employers and prohibits discrimination against job applicants and employees who engage in lawful activities during non-working hours.

“Some states have smokers’ rights statutes, some have lifestyle statutes that relate to the right to use lawful substances and others have off-duty conduct statutes relating to the right to engage in lawful activities,” Bliss says.

The decision of whether or not to act on conduct that has been observed in an off-duty situation, Bliss says, will depend very much on the specifics of the situation. You must consider, she says, “whether you’re invading an employee’s personal space unreasonably and whether you have a state law that’s going to prohibit you from taking action.”

If the situation is one that could have a potential negative impact on the employer’s legitimate business interests, or if you see someone who has violated a company policy, “The facts may weigh in favor of HR informing the company and taking further action.”

An example of a policy infraction might be observing an employee engaged in a second job at a competitor’s place of business when your company policy clearly prohibits this activity.

Another situation might involve obtaining information that puts you on “constructive notice” of either a policy violation or something that could create liability for the company. An example might be hearing that an employee was ticketed for drunk driving. Bliss presents three scenarios:

  • The employee is a driver for your company.
  • The employee is an office person who does not drive company vehicles.
  • The employee does not drive company vehicles but was wearing a company uniform at the time.

In the first case, a clear relationship exists between the conduct and the person’s job duties. With the office person, she explains, “There doesn’t seem to be a legitimate business interest for the employer.” For the employee wearing a company uniform, “Because they’re easily identified with the company, they may be sending a bad signal out to the public. That’s a little closer call as to whether the company should get involved and whether HR should do anything.”

One HR professional who asked not to be identified who currently works in a call center environment recently encountered two situations involving illegal drug use by employees. The first was at a party held outside of work hours at an employee’s home. It was, he says, “an all-out drug-fest.” He left the party and, the next day, he and his boss decided to conduct a drug test—a decision consistent with existing company policy. The people who had attended the party, as well as other randomly selected employees, were tested. Those with positive results were terminated. It was, he says, “really difficult. A couple of those people I considered friends of mine.”

In the second situation, he discovered that an employee had been smoking marijuana in a company restroom. “We fired him on the spot.”

Credibility Issues. How you handle these delicate situations outside work can affect your credibility at work. Suppose you are out to lunch with a group of employees and someone decides to order a drink, even though your company has a policy against coming to work under the influence of any alcohol or drugs.

“If you decide, I’m not working, I’m off duty, I’ll pretend I didn’t see this, you’re sending a message that perhaps you do turn off and on your HR code of professionalism,” Bliss says. “If you don’t act like an HR manager in social situations when potential problems come up, then you may lose credibility back at the workplace. People may not think you believe in what you’re doing as an HR professional.”

In this situation, what might you do differently? You might, Bliss suggests, feel obliged to say something like, “‘Aren’t we going back to work? And, if so, that would be a violation of our policy.’ You put the person on notice that what they are doing wouldn’t be appropriate and there might be a violation. If they ignore you, you may be under some kind of duty to the company to report and act on what you’ve seen in the off-duty situation since it’s a clear violation of policy.”

What if you are at an off-duty social event that is attended predominantly by employees and people are engaging in inappropriate conduct, perhaps telling sexual or racist jokes, or harassing an employee?

“Even though it’s off duty,” Bliss says, “if you tolerate that kind of conduct and don’t speak up and say it’s inappropriate, you have sent a message that perhaps you tolerate this kind of behavior. Then, when you go back to the office, I think you will be seen with less respect from the employees who saw you not acting as a professional HR representative of your company.”

If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, get out immediately. “If you’re at a party and people are smoking crack—leave,” Brian Brewer, an HR generalist in Columbus, Ohio, says. “If you’re at a party and a fight erupts—leave!”

Brewer adds, “Being an HR professional, you are the person who needs to set the example for the other employees. If you’re attending a party and there is something illegal occurring, what kind of position does that put you in? You need to stay away from situations like that.”

What Should HR Do?

HR professionals should not feel forced into a position of being the “values police,” says Magill. Yet, their role is decidedly precarious.

“I don’t think these situations could not affect the HR person,” says Lynn McClure, a human resource consultant and the principle of McClure and Associates, a firm she started in 1980 in Mesa, Ariz. “It may be unfair or it may not be. Once the HR person knows something about an employee, it colors their perspective. It gets very, very hard to be objective.”

“It really is a balancing act,” Bliss admits. “There is no one rule that applies to all situations. “It’s context specific. The HR person has to use some common sense in evaluating the information.”

Understanding the laws that affect your actions is critical. Understanding your company policies is equally important. In fact, if your company doesn’t already have policies addressing some of these issues, you may want to consider developing some.

“I think you could probably have a general policy as far as employees not doing anything off the job that is going to jeopardize the company’s reputation,” Bliss says.

“The idea of being ‘off duty’ is not limited to HR,” Johnston and others point out. “Anyone who is in a position of authority or responsibility within a company is always expected to be ‘on duty.’ It comes with the job, and anyone moving into that type of role must accept that fact and be prepared for some major changes.”

Johnston recommends that HR and other professionals:

  • Be cautious of getting caught up in spreading rumors;
  • Be careful not to reveal any type of confidential information;
  • Don’t get so out of control that people are going to lose respect for you;

The effectiveness of HR professionals in maintaining credibility while retaining the right to “be human,” McClure says, may “depend more on the HR person’s personality than anything else. If the HR person has good boundaries and it’s real clear this is the type of person who doesn’t gossip and who tends to be professional as well as friendly, and so on, people are more likely to think he or she knows where the line is. The personality, demeanor and reputation of the HR person is key.”

If you’re uncertain of the expectations that your company may have for you in your role, ask. But be prepared not to like the answer you receive.

“When my bosses told me at first that they didn’t like me doing the happy hours and things like that, I was pretty angry,” Johnston says. “I’ve moved beyond that.” But, she adds, “It’s a very tough situation to be in.

“Is HR ever off duty? No. I’m finding that out the hard way.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of The HR Book: Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999).

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