With Friends Like Me…

Always drink upstream from the herd.” – Will Rogers

One of the lesser-known pitfalls for an HR professional working as a Business Partner is one not normally mentioned when the topic of “HR Competencies” is discussed. At least in a corporate HRBP role, you can actually run into the complication of being too damn friendly. Truthfully, it can be a problem; “going native,” or “Stockholm Syndrome,” or imprinting, or whatever you want to call it – we have to remain at arm’s length from the people we support. “People” being the trickiest of all of God’s creatures, you risk compromising your objectivity at a time when it is needed most. This means, future Generalist that we have to remain friendless.

Like a lot of you, I “grew up” with a company as I honed my professional chops. Initially in a recruiting role, I took great pride in the advancement and success of the people I helped bring into the company. Not only do you have a bond with the new hire, you earn a chip with the hiring manager as he/she begins to rely on you to acquire the best talent for his or her respective team. Yessir, when you’ve had success in a staffing role, you can end up with a whole lot of buddies in the hall. Then, you get tapped on the shoulder, brought upstairs and given the golden scepter in HR ~ the “Business Partner.” Except that’s a misnomer. “Partner” implies “friend,” which does not accurately define your new position. Remember those hires you made? Now, these same people may be on the receiving end of an investigation, a performance improvement plan, or a termination – and that can be a problem.

Sadly, your days of having “friends” are over. For we, the strategic advisors to the throne, are on an island in the corporate ocean, several degrees removed from the mainland where the employee population resides. When we’re called in to provide guidance on an employee relations issues, our objectivity is critical and is expected by employee and manager alike. Those same “buddies” you had from your days of talent acquisition are now in the same category as everyone else, i.e. “potential E.R. subject.” That’s not harsh, it’s just reality. That means we are privy to (or exposed to) a lot of activity that takes place behind the curtain; and sometimes, that includes your friends.

As I’m typing this, I realize the

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ridiculous tone of my post – “…can’t have friends????? Isn’t that part of the problem with HR?” Well, maybe – but there’s a difference between being friendly and being “friends.” Finding the line of separation can be tough, especially for someone who may have spent a large chunk of their professional life with one company. You can have colleagues, peers, collaborators, mentors, associates, and clients; but “buddies” can be a liability for you and the company.

Like my old man used to say,”stay close, but don’t get close.”

FOT Background Check

John Whitaker
“Whit” is an HR Business Strategist and Staffing Professional: he primarily works in the healthcare industry, because... healthcare. A Texan, he tends to amuse us (okay, he amuses himself) with colloquialisms and a cowboy’s view on our industry. John honed his HR chops at Alcon Laboratories and CVS Caremark before starting HR Hardball™ in 2010. He currently hangs his sombrero at DentalOne Partners where he has been fortunate enough to lead a world-class team of recruiting professionals. You can email Whit, find him on LinkedIn, or read more of his brain-droppings at www.HRhardball.com


  1. Terri says:

    This is so true (and a bit sad). After firing/laying-off a number of ‘friends’ I realized that you can’t become friends with your co-workers. It is definitely important to be friendly and talk socially at work, but you don’t want to cross the line into ‘friends’ territory.

    • John Whitaker
      John Whitaker says:

      Terri, it is really difficult to make a line in the sand…I’m grateful for the relationships I had with many great people, and at the same time was put into an uncomfortable situation more than once. Thanks for the comment!

  2. KD says:

    In HR, being friends means you get leveraged. Or have the appearance of being leveraged.

    Sucks, but so true…

    Thanks- KD

  3. John Whitaker
    John Whitaker says:

    preach, KD, preach

  4. Meredith says:

    Yeah. This is true. Sadly. And as a woman, if you’re friends with a man, and then he gets a promotion, he probably was having an affair with you do get there.

  5. Tim Sackett
    Tim Sackett says:

    Whit –

    I’ll take the contrarian side of this issue, surprise-surprise, I think in HR you should be creating BFFs constantly with your employees! I just tell them up front – this is really going to suck when I fire you. And it does, but life is short, I don’t want to miss out and what might one of the best relationships I’m ever going to have! It’s like people who don’t fall in love because they don’t want to get hurt! It’s stupid. Love is great, mostly, sometimes it hurts really bad, but you don’t stop loving. And in HR, I don’t stop making friends!


  6. John Whitaker
    John Whitaker says:

    Sackett, you’re a lover, that much is clear…you had me at “hello.”

    Not a hard & fast rule, for sure – still have many close friends from those days, but it is a complication that will bite you in the ass at some point. I don’t fear getting hurt, but I don’t want anyone thinking I gave a “friend” a hall pass on behavior that gets someone else canned.
    now go get your shine box 🙂

  7. KD says:

    The moral: most HR pros don’t have the robotic soul of Tim
    Sackett and let feelings and stuff get in the way.


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