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Career Q&A: HR friendship or favoritism?

Q: After almost two decades of solid reviews, promotions and raises, I was suddenly fired. We agreed I would stay at work and try to "work it out without the attorneys" first. Part of my separation agreement may require me to continue to work for a time for the boss who fired me. I have strong negative feelings about my soon-to-be-former boss and am struggling to be professional while keeping my dignity. I have seen an attorney privately and may have a case for wrongful termination. Any suggestions?

A: Yeah, I'll bet "we" wanted to go the no-lawyer route. Granted, going full legal guns blazing would probably impoverish you to no avail, but I'm guessing management was not looking to save you a few bucks.

So, you were smart to consult an attorney on your own. You'd be even smarter to have that attorney advise you from the sidelines while you hammer out your separation details; that's what Elaine Fitch — of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch in Washington — has done for a number of workers. Her big tip: Don't sign or agree to anything your attorney hasn't seen.

My tip: Figure out what's in this unbalanced setup for them and for you. If they're supposedly firing you for cause, why keep you around? If they need your skills, maybe that gives you leverage to request that you not be forced to report directly to your own axman.

If you can't afford to walk away, remind yourself of the benefits of playing along — e.g., a continued paycheck — while you plan your exit. Plus, your helping with the transition could be a selling point to your next employer. It's easier to keep your head up if you know there's something in the deal for you.

Appearance of favoritism in HR hurts morale for all

Q: I work for a small nonprofit. Our human resources manager eats lunch fairly often with a regular group of employees — to the point where other people entering the lunchroom have felt unwelcome — and has maintained a close friendship during and after work with another manager. Normally, I don't care who's friends with whom. However, several of the regulars who eat lunch with the HR manager have been promoted, and recently an employee who reported to HR's manager friend was let go. Should HR be forming friendships with employees?

A: HR professionals, in my limited experience, are human, and most humans like having friends. The snag is that your HR manager's friendships seem to be creating a culture — or at least the appearance — of favoritism.

"Naturally, HR wants to have friends at work," says Deb Keary, vice president of human resources for the Society for Human Resource Management. "But I would never eat with the same people every day; I would never want to create a clique." And with those work friends, says Keary, "it's all about boundary-setting" and keeping confidential information off-limits.

But let me challenge your assumptions about how much influence HR professionals have. Although they are in charge of "setting up the structure" for and may be consulted on personnel actions, says Keary, they don't generally decide who gets bumped or dumped. Call me a naif, but it's possible your co-workers earned their promotions and pink slip all on their own.

Nevertheless, if workers don't feel they have equal access to the HR department, that's bad for morale and the company. You could reasonably express this concern to your boss, who could take it up — naming no names — with the HR manager's boss. Just focus on the general welfare, not on details of who's sharing fries with whom.

Reaction to fender-bender leaves worker feeling dented

Q: I had a fender-bender in the office parking lot with someone from another department (who was understandably steamed). First, I tried to say I didn't notice — and then I actually said someone else was driving! It was ridiculous and pathetic, but I was scared, and this came out before I even knew what I was saying. I gave the other person my insurance information. I don't think there will be any repercussions for my job, but I feel like a jerk. Should I try to make amends?

A: Dents can be fixed. The impression you made on your fellow worker goes deeper. A sincere "I've been feeling like a jerk for the way I reacted" might smooth things out. But check with your insurance agent to make sure you're not smoothing your way into a legal pothole.

Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

Career Q&A: HR friendship or favoritism? 03/23/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013 1:49pm]

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