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HR and Friendship: A Tricky Business

A woman is standing in an office with other people.

​For HR professionals, workplace friendships can be tricky. Should you have friends at work? 

"I feel isolated in my HR department of one," a peer told me. "But I can't make friends here—I'm afraid it will come across as wrong with the employees I don't make friends with." 

She described the experience of a colleague at another organization who became close to a senior leader. "Because of their friendship, employees there questioned HR's objectivity in performance management debriefs and in other situations," she said. 

It's important for you as an HR professional to make ties with people, getting them to trust, confide in and even like you (sometimes). Building and maintaining internal and external relationships, and helping employees navigate relationships within and outside of the workplace, are essential elements of the Relationship Management competency. After all, HR is about people. But it's also about Ethical Practice, the competency that includes maintaining confidentiality and avoiding bias. 

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HR must consider organizational culture and business policies from the perspectives of both the organization and the employees. Finding that balance ensures that employees are treated with fairness and respect, that the organization succeeds, and that all parties avoid legal risk. As an HR professional who wants to have friends at work, you may be caught in a difficult position: You know that friendships increase engagement and stakeholder buy-in, but you're also aware that if employees think you're too close to "select" people, you—and the HR department—may no longer be viewed as impartial, fair and trustworthy. 

Several blogs and articles raise the question of whether HR professionals should have workplace friendships. Their answers fall into four general categories:

Most articles lean toward "yes, with caution," but some convincingly argue "no." 

My take on HR and friendships involves three factors: 

  1. The friend. Merriam-Webster offers a multipart definition of the word. You're likely to run into problems if your friend is "attached to [you] by affection or esteem" or "favors or promotes something (as a charity)" or is "a favored companion." These definitions imply an emotionally close relationship and/or preference of one person over another—not a good look for HR.
    You'll be in better shape if your friend is an "acquaintance" or "not hostile" or "of the same nation, party, or group." In fact, these definitions seem to describe exactly what HR strives for: trustworthy, familiar, nonthreatening co-workers joined together as part of an organization with a common mission. 
  2. The friendship. In terms of the behavioral competencies required of an HR professional, the issue at hand is less about whether you have friends and more about how your relationships play out.
    According to the SHRM Competency Model, certain behaviors indicate one's proficiency in Relationship Management. The early-career HR professional "develops a network of contacts both within the organization and with external partners serving the organization." At mid-career, the professional "develops a network of contacts of internal and external stakeholders, including frontline managers, HR peers and job candidates." The senior HR professional "develops new partnerships and maintains existing partnerships with vendors, employees and supervisors to maximize value to the organization." The HR executive "develops strategic relationships with internal and external stakeholders."
    A successful HR professional, therefore, creates a network with all stakeholders and works with that network to drive toward a common business vision. Having friendships is not the key to success in HR. 
  3. The organizational environment. Is the organization a tightly controlled environment in which mitigation of interpersonal risk (e.g., pending lawsuits) is critical? In such situations, any perception of bias and lack of objectivity on the part of the HR professional—such as a friendship—could be catastrophic to the organization and staff. 

So, what is the socially inclined HR professional to do? Here are three pieces of advice: 

  • Build a trusting, diplomatic network with all internal and external stakeholders, not just a select few.
  • Avoid emotionally close relationships, especially in organizations where risk is elevated.
  • If you do have close friendships with some colleagues, excuse yourself from situations that could be perceived as conflicts of interest. 

SHRM has resources on effective strategies for managing relationships as an HR professional under the Relationship Management competency. 

Joe Jones, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is director, HR competencies and resources research, at SHRM. 

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