Let's be real. We have work. We have friends. We have workfriends. It's no surprise that HR professionals struggle with the fine line between maintaining a friend's confidence and maintaining the integrity of their roles and the loyalty to the clients or organizations they serve. Are HR professionals ever really off duty?
What are you supposed to do if a co-worker tells you over drinks that he or she is in love with a subordinate? What if you observe a leader having one too many drinks and seemingly flirting with an employee? What if each of these individuals is someone you call a friend? Does that make a difference? Should it?
A compliance guru will likely say that your first priority in those situations is to minimize enterprise risk. A lawyer will likely be in the same camp as the compliance guru. Let's try to strike a balance between reducing risk and maintaining friendships by thinking about some practical approaches to the scenarios:
1) A co-worker tells you over drinks that he or she is in love with a subordinate.
The friend in us wants the scoop. Professionally, this is an opportunity to help your friend save himself from….himself (by the way, this is equally applicable to women). Think of employment policies. Chances are there is an obligation to report the relationship. The company will need to have both individuals document that they are engaging in a consensual relationship (assuming that's the case), and they will need to set up different performance management protocols to eliminate actual or potential bias. In my experience, people were not fired for having a consensual, workplace romance. They got fired because they lied about it and/or engaged in conduct (like a coverup) which caused leadership to question their judgment.
2) You observe your friend, a leader, having one too many drinks and seemingly flirting with an employee.
If it looks like flirting and sounds like flirting, it's flirting. How many times have you heard people talking the day after someone gets in trouble, saying things like, "No surprise. You could have seen that coming a mile away" - or - "I thought someone else was keeping an eye on them" - or - "Look, I'm not the police. They're adults. It's none of my business." Again, these situations don't have to end with someone getting fired. Drinking alcohol is a common activity at business conferences or offsite meetings. People will occasionally make mistakes. Pretending nothing bad will happen when the signs are obvious is as useful as burying your head in the sand. "Be a buddy." Sometimes that means staying until the end of the evening to make sure people keep their cool and get home (or to their hotel rooms) safely (and alone).
Bottom line: relationships are important. You CAN be friends with people at work. Different situations might come up that test that friendship, but helping your friend avoid unintended consequences can also help your company retain quality talent and build better leaders.