25 February 2014

Dealing With A Dispute at Work When One Colleague Is Also A Friend


Barry Chignell

Barry Chignell

Barry Chignell worked in Ciphr's marketing team from 2012-2020.


Employee engagement Leadership and management


For HR, dealing with difficult or problem employees is a tricky task. Ensuring that you’re being fair and impartial is paramount to resolving potential issues and maintaining a pleasant and productive working environment. But what if the problem employee is also a friend, how can you deal with any issues that arise with minimal damage to not only your professional relationship, but also your personal friendship?

Some would say that if you work in HR then you shouldn’t be friends with colleagues from other areas of the business. Impartiality is often required by HR, such as in disputes between 2 or more employees, and being friends with either party could be seen to diminish your ability to be impartial. In theory this advice sounds logical, and that would make dealing with difficult situations easier, but we live in the real world, where people are friends with many of their colleagues, from all over the business.

So, on one hand, part of the role of an HR professional is to be approachable, trusted and respected by other employees, you could argue that in order to gain these qualities you do in fact need to be seen as a friend as well as a workmate. On the other hand, unless you can be equally friendly with everyone that you work with, both directly and indirectly, then you’re technically unable to be an impartial advisor or mediator, right?


In any business there should be clear and visible guidelines about what is, and isn’t, acceptable behaviour. Most employees will happily abide by these and resolve any conflict between themselves before the need for HR to get involved. For those conflicts that are not successfully concluded by the parties involved, you (HR) will need to step in to mediate. The added complication of the involvement of a friend can be dealt with professionally, it just may require a bit more thought, care and maybe a change in your normal dispute resolution processes.

Ask a colleague in HR to deal if absolutely necessary

Knowing when to deal with an issue yourself, and when to ask for assistance, assign a colleague to deal with an problem, is key. Choosing your battle carefully, and weighing up the importance of a situation will enable you to make an informed decision as to whether you will get involved first hand or not. If unavoidable, ask a colleague in HR to deal, or at least assist in dealing with the dispute, removing yourself from the situation may be the best course of action for both your colleagues and you as a representative of Human Resources.
One issue that could become apparent during the process is that your friend may let your relationship cloud their judgement as to how seriously they need to take your advice, listen to what you have to say or abide by what you’ve asked them to do. They may feel that because they have a personal relationship with you that they don’t ‘really’ have to do what you say as you’d never take disciplinary action against ‘a friend’. If you feel this may be the case, remove yourself from the direct process and assume a supervisory position whereby you can discuss proceedings with the HR representative directly involved.

Resolve the issue before it escalates

If you’re able to resolve a situation while still relatively ‘insignificant’ then that’s a great result. The attributes and skills required to sit the parties down to discuss their views in a calm, controlled manner should be part of the HR onboarding and training schedule. Moderating effectively can often stop a potentially damaging situation from escalating and provide a forum to resolve issues amicably.
The further the issue escalates, the higher tension will become, making it increasingly more difficult to resolve the situation satisfactorily. These tensions can be magnified if one party is a friend, they may be expecting you to take their side, be more lenient with them due to your relationship or for you to provide them with inside knowledge on what’s happening within HR regarding the situation. All of the responsibilities, processes and expectations, for all involved, should be set at the beginning of any internal process to avoid confusion and awkward situations.

Listening and understanding each party’s point of view is an important element in any conflict resolution. Quite often disputes will be about how to achieve the same goal, but with differing opinions on how to achieve that shared goal. By learning ‘what’s in it’ for each party, you’ll be better placed to use this information to help each side work towards their individual goal and compromising to reach a mutually acceptable outcome.

Explain to your friend that you have a responsibility to be impartial

It’s a good idea for you to have a chat with your friend, prior to proceeding, to ensure that they appreciate, and are OK with, the situation that you’re both in. Explain to your friend that you have to be impartial and that your friendship cannot influence the process or your decisions. If your friend respects you and your role within the business then they’ll understand your responsibilities as an HR professional. You must remember that the situation isn’t your fault and that you’re trying to assist and help to resolve the problem. Don’t distance yourself from your friend as this will have a negative effect on your relationship, treat them with the same respect that you’ve always given them, the same as other parties involved, and the same respect that you’ll show in the future.
Remaining impartial isn’t only the right thing to do and the safest, most effective way to deal with any dispute, it’s also a task that, if completed successfully, will gain the respect of not only those involved, but by your colleagues and peers.


There will always be employees within the business that strike up friendships and this is a good thing, both in terms of employee wellbeing, collaboration and productivity. Indeed one very effective way of recruiting new talent is through referrals, so employing new staff based on the fact they they already have a relationship with an existing employee is nothing new. managing these relationships within the work environment shouldn’t be a problem under normal circumstances and only rarely will the above ever become an issue.

If you ever do find yourself in a situation described above then it’s important to remember to act responsibly, professionally and impartially in order to reach a common goal and satisfactory outcome for everyone. This approach shouldn’t be compromised by the fact that you have friends within the business. A true friend will respect that you have a job to do and the difficult situation that you are helping to resolve.