“I don’t think I can ever join their book club,” an HR acquaintance of mine told me one time about a group of employees in her division who socialized together. “I know too much.”
I was also in Human Resources at the time, and I’d been a corporate attorney before that. I knew exactly what she meant. HR professionals—and employment attorneys also—sometimes learn too much about the people they work with to be comfortable socializing with other employees.
HR can be a lonely profession. You know who is on a performance improvement plan. You know whose jobs are about to be eliminated. You probably even know who is having an affair with whom. In all these situations, confidentiality is important. There are few people you can share information with—and typically, the fewer the better.
As social media options expand, the choices that HR professionals must make become even harder. Do you “friend” or “follow” others in your organization, knowing that you might see posts about their off-work activities that could have implications at work? What if they post racist or sexist comments? What if they post a photo of themselves lifting weights at the gym when they have lifting restrictions at work? (Don’t laugh—it’s happened.)
Some HR employees set firm policies for themselves that they will not follow anyone from their company on social media. Some won’t use social media themselves. And yet, our co-workers are often our best friends. By limiting our social media and other communications, we limit our social interactions.
I am in a book club with a senior HR manager in the company I used to work for. While we gossip about common acquaintances, she is discreet about what she says. I am no longer privy to confidential information about these individuals, but she still is. I respect and admire her circumspection.
I remember being in her shoes and not having anyone to talk to about particularly thorny situations—such as when a senior corporate employee had been accused of sexual harassment, or a well-respected employee had serious medical issues. Those were difficult and lonely times.
When I was in a senior HR role, I was fortunate to have a couple of fellow HR professionals whom I respected and trusted. Sometimes I felt comfortable using them as sounding boards to talk through difficult cases. I could role play with them or talk through likely responses from the employee in question.
But twice that I can recall I was involved in negotiating a severance agreement with the individuals who managed my trusted peers. I could not bring them into the situation, and therefore had no one to review the situations with. On another occasion, I had to discipline one of my HR peers for violating corporate policy. Again, since the individual was not being fired, I couldn’t talk about the case at all.
The higher up you are in Human Resources, the lonelier it is. The more you know about the organization and its future plans, the more prominent people you work with, the less likely it is that there is anyone to discuss these matters with. In fact, CEOs typically use their chief HR officers as their sounding boards about any and all talent issues in the organization, from performance problems of corporate officers to succession planning to how to integrate or downsize a newly acquired unit. What can the HR VP do when he or she would like a sounding board to discuss the CEO?
The worst thing that can happen for an HR professional is to lose the trust of the people in the organization. As a matter of course, HR employees walk a line between being viewed as management shills and employee coddlers. HR has to keep the long-term good of the organization in mind, and not lean too far toward either management or employees. In fact, HR needs to knock down the walls between management and employees by building a strong employee relations culture.
Still, losing trust is easy to do. Any ethical lapse or revelation of confidential information, and HR loses its effectiveness. So loneliness is part of the job. Good HR professionals learn to live with it.
When have you faced loneliness on your job?