How do I handle this HR issue?
October 24, 2016 4:37 PM   Subscribe

I am a manager at a very small creative agency. A friendship between two of our employees is both alienating and distracting to almost everyone else, but they aren't doing anything wrong. How do I bring it up delicately?

Our company is all-female, and mostly comprised of very sensitive people, so I feel that we need to tread extra-carefully when addressing this.

The two in question met on the job and hit it off. Their work days together are full of giggling, whispering, and inside jokes. They clearly love each other, and it's great that they've found each other. Both are very friendly and kind people when approached, and they aren't purposely ignoring others; it's more like they get crush tunnel vision when the other is around and just sort of forget that anyone else is in the room. At this point, nearly all of their fellows have come to me asking what they've done wrong to be not-included, if they are disliked, and how they might break into that friendship bubble, so to speak. Other things I hear are straight up complaints, ranging from "it's so annoying that I wear headphones now" to "what the fuck is this, middle school?". My boss has addressed it with them from both an "it's hurting others' feelings" and "it is distracting from others' work, take it out to lunch" angle. They were surprised and felt bad, but nothing has changed. The behavior was irritating to me today (usually neutral to bemused) and made me snappy, which is incredibly un-manegerial, but proof that things must be getting bad. We aren't a formal enough office to have things like warnings, etc. My boss doesn't want to physically separate them. We don't work in a quiet environment where nobody speaks, and they're both great employees who get their work done, so "you guys talking to each other" isn't a thing that can be punished. Everyone on the managememt team agrees that the two friends aren't doing anything malicious or purposefully leaving people out- it's truly just "girls being girls". Something needs to change, though, and I need to speak with them about it this week. I am looking for some advice from managers who may have dealt with a similar situation. It's hard to come up with the right thing to say. Thanks, guys!
posted by ElectricGoat to Human Relations (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If it's not affecting their work and they're not harassing or otherwise behaving in ways that are anything other than annoying to your co-workers, it's not an HR issue, and this is not something that HR should be involved in. Perhaps the folks in your workplace could concentrate on working and stop treating the workplace like junior high school.
posted by xingcat at 4:49 PM on October 24, 2016 [38 favorites]

What exactly is so annoying that it's making people wear headphones? Some behavior, like loud talking, is specific enough for a manager to tell them again to knock it off, because it's affecting morale. Behaving rudely, or being deliberately exclusionary can similarly be morale-sucks. "You guys need to make a point of socializing with other people when you're at work-- it's being part of a team." At some point, everyone needs to participate invite life of the team (at least in terms of your workplace. Might not be true everywhere.)

But the other coworkers also need to accept that everyone is not equally friends with everyone. It's not HR's job to make sure everyone is socially comfortable. Sometimes they're just not.

In other words, the manager needs to identify specific behaviors that are problematic, and hold the friends accountable -- and the other people need to make an effort to focus their attention elsewhere.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:52 PM on October 24, 2016 [10 favorites]

Are you sure that they aren't actually dating? If so, is that permitted at your company?

An informal office does not equate to "unprofessionalism is tolerated or encouraged". If the behavior of any employee is *actually* disrupting others' workflow, it should be addressed. Ideally not as a "You guys need to be more inclusive in your interactions" but as "You are behaving unprofessionally and it is distracting your colleagues. Please tone things down." If they don't, you should be prepared to back up your request by separating them or taking some other measure to stabilize the office dynamic.

Do not demand they include others in their interactions. Forcing office friendships? Ugh. Honestly, I am surprised by the co-workers' reactions -- to go to management about "what they've done wrong to be not-included, if they are disliked, and how they might break into that friendship bubble" sounds pretty middle school to me already, so you may want to view this as a corporate culture upgrade that needs to happen for everyone.
posted by ananci at 4:52 PM on October 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I actually think it's legit to say, "you need to make an effort to strengthen your relationships with your other colleagues." It's less "stop excluding" and more "you need to be more effective in this area."
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:54 PM on October 24, 2016 [24 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with chesty_a_arthur. Forging rapport with coworkers is important. My boss has told my team that we should all make this a priority. It's actually advantageous to an individual, because it's easier to work with people (and have them be amenable to helping you) when you have a good relationship with them. You're not forcing friendships, you're encouraging rapport. It's okay for people to have work BFFs. It's not okay for them to totally exclude other team members to the point that it's affecting morale.

And to clarify, it's not an HR issue (e.g. harassment), it's a management issue, so it's certainly appropriate for a manager to intervene.
posted by radioamy at 5:02 PM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What exactly is so annoying that it's making people wear headphones?

It could be that they're doing that annoying conspiratorial stage whisper nonsense that some people do, which is quite far into middle school territory, but hey.

I agree that you can ask your dynamic duo to strengthen their team-building efforts, but first, you might want to untangle whether it's a matter of (a) these two not putting much effort into developing rapport with others, (b) other people assuming they're too cliquey to touch with a 10-foot pole, or a more or less combination of (a) and (b). Doing this will take a lot of observation of how they work with others and the kinds of challenges they encounter when producing work as part of a team. If we're talking about an environment full of sensitive people who might place some responsibility on management to keep them socially comfortable, I wouldn't be totally shocked if reactions to perceived exclusion are the real issue you need to deal with.
posted by blerghamot at 5:15 PM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Re: HR, I'm sorry for being unclear or misleading. We don't have an HR department or official, and internally refer to anything relating to company culture as HR related...I wasn't thinking when I chose the title. No, no one is bring harrassed- thanks for pointing out the difference. I'd edit the post title if I could!
posted by ElectricGoat at 5:16 PM on October 24, 2016

If they're kind of just talking more than people are really keen on, it seems like the easy thing would be suggesting that they just take it to IM, if the company's computer use policies allow for it. Or potentially something like my current team has, where in the morning it's kind of a free-for-all, but in the afternoon there's a not-very-strictly-enforced quiet time--if you NEED to talk to someone, you can, but it's only for NEED kind of conversations, not random chatter, and that makes sure we all get a bit done with fewer distractions.
posted by Sequence at 5:25 PM on October 24, 2016

This sounds like the kind of thing that's really only a problem in open-plan offices.

We don't work in a quiet environment where nobody speaks

You mention "crush tunnel vision," is their friendship romantic at all? If before it was "everybody" chit chatting across the room and it was all copacetic, but now that these two are on the scene they kind of suck up all the group "atttention space" with their 1-on-1 blathering such that if the previous culture was going to persist it would be chit-chat at all times filling in every silent moment, then what are the chances of getting them an office (if they do work related to each others'), or, likely because that's a non-starter, separating both of them aside with an office divider between their desks and the rest of the office. The dividers tend to have sound absorption qualities that will add to the help that the basic separation provides.

Disclaimer: I don't subscribe to the concept of HSP as an excuse for anything, but I did try to choose the least-conflict path here. Hopefully my suggestions wouldn't be greeted with "oh, so now they get their own semi-sorta private space while we're out here working on foldable tables."

Lastly, there's a classroom strategy to be had here as well: separating them simply because their interaction is disruptive, even though it's not harmful (or even is beneficial) to the organization's mission.
posted by rhizome at 5:32 PM on October 24, 2016

Best answer: Agreed: If there's specific behavior that is an issue, that you need to see more or less of (collaborating with other coworkers, reducing personal chitchat time or taking it to the breakroom), focus on that. They can work toward (or away from) concrete issues, but there's nothing much they can do about just "our being friends outside of work is annoying or upsetting in some vague nonspecific way to others."

Also, reeeeeally don't say anything about "girls will be girls" or imply that the issue is anything to do with your being an all-female workplace, when you have these conversations. The issue doesn't sound like it's anything to do with their or their coworkers' genders.

You could, I suppose, work on some measures to encourage them to interact with others more - pair them up with other people on assignments or for cross-training? I hate to suggest that since I personally hate forced-office-friendship activities vehemently, but you will know if it makes sense for your office.
posted by Stacey at 5:34 PM on October 24, 2016 [16 favorites]

Also: even if your BFFs are high performers whose work relationship results in unusually high-quality work...don't be afraid to break up the dream team if they are in fact being cliquey. I say this even as someone who's benefitted from a managerial reluctance to interfere in a bad dynamic that's resulted in good work...for the sake of long-term morale, it's not worth turning a blind eye towards.
posted by blerghamot at 5:39 PM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Whoa whoa whoa. These people report to you? And almost everybody on the team has complained about it? And your boss has already had a talk with them about it and nothing has changed?

This is really bad. I haven't dealt with issues exactly like this, but I have dealt with issues of one person demoralizing everyone else, and you absolutely HAVE to take strong action on that -- if you just let it go, the rest of the team will lose respect for you. You need to have a come to Jesus talk with them about it. This isn't the time to figure out how to spin it so it doesn't hurt their feelings. They need to understand that this is a Performance Issue and they need to Change or there will be Consequences. And like blerghamot suggests, splitting them up so they don't work together would be an appropriate consequence. If your boss doesn't want that to happen, you need to talk to your boss about what kinds of corrective action you can take, but that her tying your hands here is undermining your authority as a manager, and you need to be able to back up your words with actions.
posted by phoenixy at 5:53 PM on October 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think the danger in asking that they forge relationships with other coworkers is that they will try to do it sort of jointly, instead of individually, which will just exacerbate the feeling that they are one and everyone else is separate. You don't want them functioning as a sort of unit and saying "let's go to lunch with person A" and going to lunch with person A, building a sort of joint relationship with personA etc. Instead you want each of them to independently form more collegial relationships with other coworkers, ideally not the exact same other coworkers to the exact same extent (i.e. you want TwinA to form closer ties with Persons A, B, and F while TwinB forms their closer ties with B, D, E and F, or whatever).

Not that they shouldn't both have collegial relationships with everyone, but the strength of working ties will vary and if they have super-strong ties with each other and then strong ties to the exact same two people, and ok ties to the exact same 3 people, and friendly but not particularly close with the exact same 4 people, it's going to keep the feeling that they are some sort of middle school bobbsey twins.

So my suggestion would be that you tell them each (separately) to form stronger relationships to coworkers and then give them different opportunities to do so. Put one on the photocopier-picking committee with some people and put the other on the holiday-party-planning committee with mostly different people, or whatever.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:00 PM on October 24, 2016 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: They aren't my team, and don't report to me. My boss is really passive when it comes to interpersonal stuff like this, which is why I will be the one chatting with them. I have a good rapport with them. My boss' issues and potential failings are for another ask, another day.

Stacey, thank you for reminding me that this shouldn't involve and doesn't reflect gender. Again, I'd edit if I could.
posted by ElectricGoat at 6:02 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've received some helpful suggestions and things to think about here. I may share a slightly edited version of this thread with my boss. Thanks, all!
posted by ElectricGoat at 6:25 PM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

We don't work in a quiet environment where nobody speaks, and they're both great employees who get their work done, so "you guys talking to each other" isn't a thing that can be punished.

If this is honestly true and you're not leaving any important things out, then absolutely something needs to be done: a boss needs to speak sharply and harshly to each and every person who complains about literally nothing. the only way this would be a disciplinary issue for them is if there were only three people at the company and they were two of them, so that the one other person was being shunned by, effectively, the whole office. doesn't sound like that's the situation though.

If they whisper during presentations, yell at them. If they laugh together so loudly that other people can't concentrate, tell them to shut up. if they don't pay attention when they're being spoken to, invent a warning system so you can give them a warning. but if other people have a problem with them liking each other best, even though they are not bullying or harassing or refusing to speak when spoken to by others, those other people are somewhere between massively unprofessional and deranged. this is nuts and a toxic work environment but those two are not the ones making it that way.

At work, you have to work in the groups you're assigned to, you have to be civil to everybody, and you have to keep your gossip and backbiting to backchannels so your bitterness is plausibly deniable. Your other co-workers are failing hugely at this last imperative, not the two BFFs.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:33 PM on October 24, 2016 [19 favorites]

I had two people on one of my teams like this. Whenever they would start, I would start making whispering noises and giggle to myself. It actually stopped pretty quickly.

As a manager, I would point out that it's genuinely distracting to listen to whispering and gigglings. If they want to have a non-work conversation, they should step out of the office to do so.
posted by xammerboy at 8:17 PM on October 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you've tried all the discussion approaches (telling them it's distracting, asking them to take it out of the office), and that hasn't worked.

This means concrete consequences are necessary. You've got to frame it (again) as an issue of professionalism, and if they do not make a real effort to behave professionally, they will be separated.

I make friends easily at the office, as do others. Here are ways we keep it backchanneled:
- Instant messaging, but only occasional (we have work to do)
- SMS/phone texts, but only occasional (we have work to do)
- Coffee breaks within legal limits (we have work to do)
- Lunches, but not every day together (we have work to do)

note that there is a common denominator. Chatting is great, but if they're chatting conspiratorily that much, they're not behaving professionally. I'm inclined to be a tad more forgiving of the others in that I think the middle-school behavior is being modelled as not having any real consequences, and so they're pushing that route too.

There are worse HR issues to have, yes. But don't feel like it's so minor that you can brush it aside, either. Things like this can snowball; all it takes is one non-management person deciding to take things into their own hands.
posted by fraula at 1:09 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I could have written this ask, I worked in an office with the exact same dynamic (except I was a colleague of the BFFs, not their manager). While our department of 10 all got along well, these two were joined at the hip (and known as the Bobbsey Twins by the entire company). I agree you're in a tough spot, because they weren't exactly doing anything wrong, they simply got on like gangbusters, but it really was Constantly overhearing two people giggling and whispering, watching them go out for breaks and lunch every day, was indeed alienating and distracting. They were younger and closer in age to each other than the rest of the department, so I tried my best to ignore it and chalk it up to them not realizing it came across as unprofessional and cliquey.

Our manager did speak to each of them a couple times about "not spending so much time at [the other's] desk" and asking for special projects if they had extra time to be socializing, but it only changed their behavior for a few days and then they were back at it. I'm sorry I don't have much for advice, but I certainly commiserate.
posted by Bretley at 5:33 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: > I personally hate forced-office-friendship activities vehemently

Me too. Put me in the "nothing to see here" camp; if I were in the office, I wouldn't give a damn if two coworkers were joined at the hip—in fact, I've probably been in that situation and barely noticed. Because the relationship of coworkers to each other is none of my business unless it directly impacts me. Find out if there's some specific thing that the two are doing that's bothering people, and if it's something that's reasonable to ask them to modify, go ahead and ask them, but if it's just a general sense of being left out of their tight friendship, that's childish and not worth your attention. Tell the complainers to grow up... well, that's unrealistic, but tell them to focus on their job and ignore the Bobbsey Twins.
posted by languagehat at 7:12 AM on October 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

"they're both great employees who get their work done"

One of the points often made on the excellent Ask a Manager blog is that in an office job part of the job description has to be getting along with others and contributing positively (or atleast not negatively) to the team. It's not just about your direct work outputs and 'getting the work done'. Hence if these two are indeed actively causing an issue for the rest of the team (that isn't the team over reacting or being unreasonable), and they are not responding to their bosses requests to knock it off, then they are not acting as great employees, however good their work outputs are.

I have found this a helpful way to reframe certain situations, typically when you have a high performing employee whose output is high but who is a PITA to work with!
posted by Albondiga at 2:21 PM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Conduct that doesn't violate policy is acceptable until it disrupts the workplace. You're dealing with multiple complaints about their behavior now, not just one or two, and they've already been coached about this, and you don't know what to do about it. Have a frank conversation with them where you say just that. I would encourage you to touch base with them together for a minute to say all that, then chat with both of them individually before talking with them together again. Don't coach them as a couple, because that's just going to reinforce their view as a unit. Make sure they each understand what the issue is, and identify specific behaviors Employee A does that you can call out to her, and similar for B. Ask each what they think the "good coworker" looks like, and whether or not they are that ideal. Ask for specific examples of behaviors they can change. Add your own feedback. Bring them back together, recap what you talked about with each, and tell them that you really (really) don't want to police them, but if they fall back into it you're going to start telling them to knock it off as you see the behaviors cropping up.

When fielding complaints from their colleagues, ask them something of the same: What do you want your interactions with them to look like? What do you want your workplace/their relationship to look like? How can you, employee, make that happen? I'm happy to help however you think I can, but only after you do what you just said you can do to make it better.
posted by good lorneing at 7:51 PM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: xingcat nailed this one in the very first comment. The middle-school behavior here is complaining about an irritating friendship, not having one.
posted by tangerine at 2:31 AM on October 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Two workmates actually like each other, have a great relationship and you're trying to separate them? WTF is on with you all? That's a rare enough finding as is! The other colleagues sound jealous and jaded, tbh. I bet they haven't felt any sparkle magic in a long time. Give these two a joint office for noise control and the autonomy to forge their own friendships.

<3 Psst as a star unit in a similar terribly annoying binary crush system, I assure you: if you dare separate me from my boo, our workload will plummet [DEPRESSED] and our love will only grow stronger [FORBIDDEN! STORM THE IRON GATES!]
posted by fritillary at 1:24 AM on October 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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