Can HR Make Friends at Work?

HR Are People Too.  Cross My Heart.

This week I’m at the SHRM Talent and HRO Today Forum conferences in Washington, DC and next week I’m in New York City for the HRPS Global Conference.  All three are great events with a variety of human resource professionals from big companies as well as small.  But there is a sad reality lurking in the midsts. Let me just preface this by saying HR people are fun.  We are people too.  In fact, HR professionals are some of the most interesting people you may ever meet.  I promise.  Cross my heart.

When I was in college my Anthropology professor, Dr. Harald Prins used to say the field of Anthropology attracted “weird birds.”  These weird birds viewed the world differently and enjoyed analyzing cultures, history, and human beings looking through a completely different world lens.  Mostly because our job as Anthropologists is to observe and study the social classes and groups of human beings and their cultures.  We use methods like participant studies, interviews and surveys to gather our data and support points of view.  To me, this sounds more than a little like what we do in HR.  And sometimes being a weird bird can be a lonely place especially among the corporate cultures.

Employee Engagement & The Anthropology of HR

Our responsibility in the field of HR is to view the organization differently.  We focus on evaluating and working towards soft measurables using programs that promote employee engagement or work life balance or the candidate experience. Our involvement in the organization with these programs has far reaching effects, and yet most senior leaders, front line managers, or employees have no clue.  HR effectively has a PR problem.

Can HR Make Friends at Work?

HR professionals are people too, and unfortunately, in most organizations this fact is lost among our bosses, peers, and employees.  They see us as the policy police responsible for hiring and firing left to observe the culture of our organization like an Anthropologist  instead of inserting ourselves into that culture.  Because inserting ourselves into the culture and building friendships poses a risk.  The sad reality of HR is that becoming friends at work is often times not an option.  We avoid happy hours after work and keep to ourselves.  It’s hard to enjoy a beer with an employee with the knowledge that they’re on a performance improvement plan or part of an ongoing HR investigation.

And so our employees effectively have no idea what we do, who we are, or how our role benefits the organization.  I guess that’s where I see bloggers and those HR professionals active on social media working to change the stereotype for HR.  While HR professionals internally can make changes by inserting themselves into the culture at their organization and building relationships.   While at the same time, this blog and others like it as well as HR communities with a large reach can do the same.

Employee Perception Change of HR in 2012

There is not a week that doesn’t go by someone doesn’t tell me, “My HR person is nothing like you.”  They say, “You use social media, you blog, and you speak your mind.  You are nothing like them.”

Yes, our interests may not be the same, but the people that work and dedicate their professional lives within this industry are some of the most interesting, creative, and engaging people I’ve ever met.  As an independent consultant and analyst, I, however, am not chained the corporate HR throws.  I don’t lie at wake at night wondering if that picture of me drinking a glass of wine on Facebook might be seen by my staff, and the problems and assumptions it might bring.  Your HR team does worry about these types of things. . . . ALOT.

For HR, it’s time to move from behind the curtain, let loose, and for HR pros to take a risk.  Nobody really cares about your Facebook picture of you and your friends drinking wine.  It’s demonstrates your humanity not your liability if in moderation.  Consider using Facebook settings to hide those pictures from your employees if you must.  Move beyond the comfort zone of the HR conference and attend your front line manager’s next happy hour.  Let’s help change that perception one person at a time.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.

Reader Interactions


  1. Trace says

    Howdy… I am also @wchra on twitter. I could not agree more with you. I am often told that they have never seen an HR professional be as personable as I am. I take the first part of my title very serious … Human… We are in the business of relating and translating the needs of the employee and the company. In the words of Johnny Cash.. I walk the line… Between corp and the employee. I also often say that I do not have to be stiff or rude to be a professional. I can be professional and personable. Thanks Trace

    • Jessica Miller-Merrell says


      Thanks for commenting here. This topic has been bugging me for sometime and hadn’t figured out a way to articulate. Being here in DC this week and meeting so many amazing HR folks reminded me that I just need to push publish and talk about the subject. I’m always amazed at how scared employees are of HR folks. We are not the people who are firing folks and HR folks have a lot of misconceptions. Appreciate the comment.


  2. John Rorick says

    While I think more conversation could be had around the delicate balance of friend and HR pro in the workplace, I think one other item of note is that your above take could be said for more than just HR professionals. I think the reason why this comes up more for HR folks is due to ineffective HR leaders being viewed as hiring/firing prevention, “no police”, corporate cops, paperwork/admin jockeys, etc.

    Every employee in my mind should approach work as personable and professional. If you are a manager, an entry level staffer, or SVP of Sales you should also stay cognizant of the delicate balance between friend and “pro”. This does not preclude anyone from enjoying happy hour, but it does mean you may not want to be seen doing shots and back-slapping the mid-level manager with the pending sexual harassment claim, as you are on a bar stool next to their accuser. Although moments like that can be cause for any HR pro to drink heavily…. 🙂

  3. Amy says

    I’m Amy- tweeter@amancini2012- and I really like this article. I would like to see more. One thing I’ve done is take new employees out to lunch after a month on the job to talk about their family, friends, and a little about work and how they like it. So far, I’ve gotten a great response.
    I do however limit my Facebook to my friends/family and LinkedIn to anyone- just my personal preference for now.
    I am really trying hard to change other’s perception of HR- policy and procedure police. I’m fortunate to work in a smaller company that allows me to put the “human” in human resources.

  4. Jen Hanlon Ash says

    I’ve joked about this for years: thank god I have a fair number of ‘outside’ friends, because HR is not at the top of anyone’s Happy Hour list. But as someone else pointed out, it’s really about the role and not the entire profession. If you are the one who always handles Employee Relations (been there), people get nervous around you. If you handle Recruiting (am there now), everyone is your friend/client/potential hire. Same with being a manager; you are always ‘the boss’ even if sometimes, you just want to have one more beer with the gang. I think HR has a PR problem that’s slowly getting chipped away by people like yourself, and thank god for social media in this regard! I mix my social media prof-ersonally; that was deliberate. Then again I’m 40; I’m not posting pics of myself doing shots on the beach; I’m pretty comfortable sharing my personal life with co-workers; and as a Recruiter any way to connect is potentially the next lead. More than that, it’s a waste of energy for me to force my (social media) life into little compartments: work, hobbies, family, interests, humor. But perhaps I work at a place where this blending is more the norm than the exception? I have quite a few friends – HR and non-HR – who still ‘would never “friend” a coworker on Facebook’. I find that strange, especially considering these are not exactly people living the Wild Life. It’s not perfect or a replacement for human contact, but I maintain my professional relationships are generally richer for the random connections I’ve made online whether it’s commenting on someone’s post, liking a photo, sharing a joke, or passing around the latest Infograph.
    Anyway, keep up the great PR campaign for us… we need it! And the Pinterest boards. Love them!

  5. Jocelyn Aucoin says

    Love this. And think you’re right – HR does have a PR problem. Too bad too because there are some seriously great peeps in this world (including my husband, who’s an analyst!). So excited though for the future of work and HR’s role in it. It’s time for the innovative thinkers and the ones who believe so much in developing people and business in HR to take a real brave stance by embracing new technologies and ideas and leading this march forward. No one ever made waves by standing still! And yeah – maybe you make a few enemies, but so did all the great people in the world!

    Looking forward to reading more from you, Jessica. 🙂


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