Dilemma of the Month: Out-of-Office Socialization

Back Q&A Mar 8, 2018 By Suzanne Lucas
I am the chief human resources officer of a startup and live with a fellow co-founder. Without telling me, he invited one of our interns over to our house for reasons unrelated to work. While they are just playing Pokémon, I feel I am in an awkward position. Is after-hours employee fraternization between a co-founder and an intern inappropriate, or am I just being extra cautious?

You’re being cautious, and I would be too. While there’s nothing wrong with a friendly game of Pokémon, this type of relationship is fraught with problems — so let’s talk about them.

I’m going to guess that none of you are super old, as you are living with roommates and playing Pokémon. (Stereotypes, I know.) You’re probably baby boomers and living the Golden Girls’ lifestyle. But add in the whole startup scene and I’m guessing you’re in your mid- to late-20s, which means an intern isn’t that much younger. In a different world, you could all be friends.

Related: Don’t let an office relationship result in career breakdown

Related: Dilemma of the Month: He Said, She Said

But, you can’t. You, especially, can’t be friends with staff. As the chief human resources officer, you will have to make decisions about employees that need to be done fairly. If you’re friends with some and not others, your decisions may be biased. While it’s not illegal to favor one employee over another because of a friendship (it’s only illegal if it’s based on race, gender, etc.), it’s not what is best for the business.

How can you write up an employee with whom you spend your weekends? How can you select your best buddy for a necessary layoff? If another employee comes to you with a complaint about your friend, can you investigate it impartially? You see the problems. HR doesn’t get friends at the office, period. (Of course, you’re roommates with another employee, but at least you’re both executive level management.)

As for your roommate and the intern, that relationship is inappropriate for many of the same reasons listed above. Sure, it’s not a romantic relationship (which most companies officially frown on), but even a friendship between levels of seniority has potential problems.

It doesn’t seem very hip and egalitarian to say senior-level employees shouldn’t hang out with interns, but our goal here is to run and grow a business, not to be hip and cool. It’s great they have a shared interest, but you don’t build a business relationship on that. If he wants to throw a Pokémon party for all the interns, that would be fun, but the one-on-one stuff has to stop.

So, now comes the hard part: You’re the head of HR, so this is your responsibility. You have to address it and it will most likely be unpleasant precisely because your relationship with your co-founder is not strictly business, but personal. (And maybe I’ve misjudged and you’re not just roommates, but romantic partners, which makes it even harder.)

So, you say, “John, I’m glad you’re trying to build relationships with people at work, but you can’t invite a single intern over to the house. It will look like you are playing favorites.”

He may say, “Yeah, you’re right. It was a little awkward,” but he may say, “Chill, it’s just Pokémon.”

But it’s not just Pokémon, it’s the whole business. As a founder, his loyalty needs to be to the business and that means he can’t treat one intern differently than the other interns and employees. The power differential is too great.

He could not only run into problems in the long run, he may already have other employees saying, “Gee, how come I didn’t get an invitation to John’s house?”

Now, he could also argue this is part of your company’s culture. Fine, but it shouldn’t be. Not all cultures are equal, and you want a culture that will help the company succeed.

It can be a difficult shift for young founders to go from that college hangout culture to “I’m the boss” culture. But, it’s really critical for business success. You may wish to suggest your roommate and the other founders seek out executive coaching or management training. If you don’t have 20 years of management experience under your belt when you become the head of a company, it can be difficult to comprehend what being the boss really means.

And one of the things it means is you don’t invite a single intern over to play Pokémon. There are 7.6 billion people in the world, and only 20 or so at work you can’t be friends with. Should be easy.

Have a burning HR question? Email it to: evilhrlady@comstocksmag.com


Visitor (not verified)March 16, 2018 - 6:13am

This is a very old school, conservative and smart risk-averse take on the situation. I've worked now as head of HR for a few major VC-backed startups and the Founders of the companies are not millennial as they are in their 40s-50s. When I entered these companies I too was the cautious HR keeping my distance and not having friends at work. The Founders insisted that I needed to be a regular staff like everyone else and to not set myself apart. Hanging out after work and socializing was strongly encouraged especially because I was in HR. The idea was that by actually creating a family and creating real relationships it helps with retention, better collaboration and openness. Also I did find when situations did go south, they were worked out like family and friends, not even considering litigation as an option. While it may be risky as you scale, I've seen it work for smaller sized companies around 100 people. Regarding having an intern in your home as an executive, well no one should ever be 1:1 anymore with co-workers in this era of hyper-harassment awareness and the perception of favoritism. As long as there are 3 or more present so you have witnesses there should be no issue. It sounds like in this specific case, the CHRO is the one who doesn't want the intern in the house, so I think the whole window-dressing of the work scenario is irrelevant even though to the CHRO the reason is the HR issue. This is just one housemate who doesn't want a particular guest in their house. The reason doesn't matter so they need to talk it out and define a rule for the house on vetoing certain guests.