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I am pretty new at my work, having only been there for a few months (compared to people who have worked there for up to 10 years) and I felt a little pushed aside during lunch breaks or company parties as the old guys had much more things in common to talk about. However, I got some nice contact with a coworker who is generally not full effort into the work and is the first person to enhance conflicts if there appear any. Yet, he was very nice to me and it helped me feel better as barely anyone else wanted to speak to me outside the obvious work-related stuff.

Recently, someone from HR planned a short meeting with me and the pure fact she planned it ahead instead of just straight up approaching me seemed like the matter is somewhat serious. So we went to the conference room and after some initial chit-chat she suggested that I "should be more careful choosing company amongst coworkers". I did not understand at first but then she pointed out that I started hanging out and generally getting closer to the guy mentioned in the previous paragraph. She told me that this guy is generally poorly viewed by the management because of his low engagement to the work stuff and his propensity to throw some mildly offensive jokes that can cause him to get sued by anyone who feels offended. At the end of the meeting, she said that I seem to be a promising candidate to get promoted in the future and therefore it is not advised I am associated with the guy who might receive a termination of employment soon.

The last part sounded a little bit like a threat to me. I know for sure the HR really dislikes this guy and I can somewhat understand her (yes, his jokes are really out of place every now and then). However, I can't seem to find out why staying in good relation with him (as I have been trying with anyone else with poor results) could hurt my career. What should I do in this case? Should I comply and reduce contact with the said coworker to avoid any potential inconvenience? And also, what could the possible motives of the whole matter be? Is HR trying to separate the guy from the other colleagues to convince him to quit himself or is she genuinely trying to protect me?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Dukeling, gnat, solarflare, sf02, Solar Mike Jun 7 at 14:54

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 3
    Only you can decide if your career is more important to you than socializing with co-workers. – sf02 Jun 6 at 20:38
  • 8
    No wonder he's a jerk if HR keep warning people not to talk to him! – JMK Jun 7 at 8:23
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    Does this kind of behaviour from HR constitute bullying and/or harassment? Bullying someone out of a job by systematically destroying their friend pool could be cheaper than firing them. – P. Hopkinson Jun 7 at 8:46
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    The burning question I would ask is "if this guy is so toxic, why the hell does the company keep him on the pay roll?" I'd be far more worried about the sneaky behaviour from HR than the alleged toxic guy. – Abigail Jun 7 at 9:27
  • 4
    HR is warning you that he's grooming you, most likely because he has a track record of "befriending new recruits" and this usually ends badly. End of story. What the OP does with the warning is entirely up to the OP. – alephzero Jun 7 at 11:39
68

That's unusual and inappropriate behavior from the HR person. Regardless of what issues your colleague has, that needs to be dealt with behind closed doors and out of sight of any other employees.

Ask your manager for advice. Tell him the facts of the story and ask for her/his interpretation and what he/she expects you to do.

  • 9
    "Inappropriate" - Oh yeah, definitely. "Unusual" - Well, maybe. In the stereotypical "we can barely keep the lights on" startup, I could easily imagine this "HR person" also being the CEO and the OP's immediate manager. That's probably not the case in this particular question, but still, the degree to which HR knows what it is doing varies substantially. – Kevin Jun 7 at 5:44
  • @Kevin Nothing in this question implies that this is a small or startup company. It's probably not applicable to even suggest that might be the case here. – Snow Jun 7 at 9:53
  • @Snow enumerating options for an unknown seems reasonable. – Robert Grant Jun 7 at 10:49
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    Within context, maybe. But employees being at this company for 10years+ doesn’t say “startup” to me. – Snow Jun 7 at 10:59
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    That being said, it seems contextually appropriate if OP were a new hire to at least inform them that the coworker's work attitude is frowned upon, to prevent OP from unknowingly assuming an unhealthy work attitude. HR cannot control who OP socializes with (and I fully agree that that crosses a moral boundary); but it's possible that the HR rep in OP's case overreached with what was intended as an acceptable reframing of the coworker's work attitude. One man's threat can be another man's well intentioned advice about inevitable consequences. – Flater Jun 7 at 11:25
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or is she genuinely trying to protect me?

People in this forum can't know what the HR woman really plans to achieve.
But I can give my impression of this situation which should help you to further evaluate it. The short form of my answer is yes she could be trying to protect you.

I can't seem to find out why staying in good relation with him (as I have been trying with anyone else with poor results) could hurt my career.

Imagine this at school, the bullies or "bad ones" or nerds and whatever groups there are. One doesn't judge everyone individually. Someone joining the bullies group is considered a bully too. How else should they fit into this group? Period. This is not nice but it's how peoples' minds work.

From what you describe I conclude this person is seen as perhaps an outsider (not a major problem) who makes inappropriate jokes and upsets people (this is a problem).
You are joining this group.
Those who don't like him will not even try to like you - it's even harder for you to get close to others. Imagine the person really leaves this company, then your only contact is lost but your impression on others is still present.

The information she gave you can help you to at least not slip completely out of contact with other colleagues.

If you really are a candidate to be promoted, being an outsider that no-one else talks to really is an obstacle.

What should I do in this case?

Regardless of this HR meeting was legally or ethically correct or not, you should think about where you are going to position yourself in this company.
I would ask the HR woman for further details about what she said. What is this guy's reputation in the company, is he really short about getting fired and so on. She should know what she is allowed to tell you.

If you want to keep chit-chat alive with the guy, don't lose contact with your other colleagues. For example, during lunch breaks, don't feel pushed back if they talk about long-known things. It's not a problem to just listen to them.
There is another thread I know and probably many others I don't know dealing with how to get closer contact to colleagues.

Added as a response to comments

Talking behind someone's back is not nice but it has already happened (you and HR) and has left you confused. So you should find out at least enough details to know the situation better that you are in.
What I'd try to find out is

  • how do others think about the guy? Is it only HR who badmouthes him for some reason? Your description of his jokes, productivity and enhancing conflicts made me assume this person really is kind of strange.
    You should make more clear what this HR statement really meant.
  • what about your promotion? Don't expect to be promoted in the near future but it could be interesting to find out a little more about the general backgrounds.
  • 6
    "She should know what she is allowed to tell you" the fact that this conversation happened at all makes me doubt that, honestly. – Erik Jun 7 at 8:19
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    What's the benefit of talking to HR again? They have already answered the questions you suggested? It does not feel like good practice to talk about someone extensively behind their back. – Ola M Jun 7 at 12:17
  • "Regardless of this HR meeting was legally or ethically correct or not, you should think about where you are going to position yourself in this company" - if the company's policies are legally/ethically doubtfull, OP might want to re-consider if he wants to tie his future with the company in the first place – Velimir Tchatchevsky Jun 7 at 16:49
  • Of course the company could be doubtfull and HR doesn't automatically mean to be professional. Of yourse it could also be as Stig Hemmer mentioned in his answer, "the guy" is the victim of HR. OP doesn't know what is going on, the only chance is to find out more. I'll add this to my answer. – puck Jun 8 at 5:44
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As the others have said, we don't really know enough to say for sure. Nevertheless, everybody has taken sides, and I am not different.

To spin pucks School analogy:

You have transfered to a new school. On your first day you spend some minutes chatting with someone who seems lonely. Later someone else tells you to stay away from them "if you don't want to be a pariah too".

Now I ask you: Who is bullying who here? To me it is obvious that HR is the bully while your new friend is the victim. I may be wrong, so make up your own mind.

Now, allying with a bully's victim is dangerous. It turns the bully's attention to you too. It is much safer to just be "one of the crowd".

The question then becomes, what is more important to you, your career or being a decent human being? Nobody but you can answer that question.

If you choose to do the decent thing, it is not all or nothing. If they make an inappropriate joke, don't laugh. Explain why it was inappropriate. As you are somebody who is otherwise friendly to them, they are more likely to listen to you than to others.

Also, try to connect to the others employees too.

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    This is roughly what I though too: you are too new for HR to care about you, but it sounds like they want this person to walk out on their own, without the company needing to take action themselves. – Mike Brockington Jun 7 at 9:07
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    Officially ostracizing an employee is very strange behavior from an HR rep. I could see it being an unofficial policy by peers (who don't have the power to fire), but not from those who do have the power to fire. The whole conversation sounds like a recipe for a lawsuit. – Underminer Jun 7 at 15:01
  • "Also, try to connect to the others employees too." +1 – Lamar Latrell Jun 7 at 23:22
  • Your thoughts are an interesting different view on this scene, compared to my assumption. This is an even stronger indication to find out what's happening in the backgrounds. +1 – puck Jun 8 at 6:08
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What should I do in this case ?

The person you've been friendly with does sound (by your own admission) like someone who could potentially damage your own reputation simply as a result of been seen to be friendly with him.

Inappropriate jokes, poor approach to work, bad in arguments - it's a bad combination.

And you don't know if that person has their own not so nice agenda in being friendly to you. Be a little wary of people who are too friendly, although only you can tell if that's the case.

Work a little harder at connecting to the "good" employees. That would also maybe get you a chance to get a better understanding of the politics in the office. You can learn a lot by listening to people talk and as they come to know you better and trust you, they'll become more open, probably.

Should I comply and reduce contact with the said coworker to avoid any potential inconvenience ?

I would say reduce contact because you need to be wary of someone who acts inappropriately because you are a new employee. Establish your own reputation for being the person you want to be seen as.

Other people may be more wary of you if they think you're like this other person simply because you hang out with them.

And also, what could the possible motives of the whole matter be ?

You (and we) need a lot more information to say that.

Is the HR girl trying to separate the guy from the other colleagues to convince him to quit himself or is she genuinely trying to protect me ?

There's no way to know for sure, but I would suggest that your own common sense should tell you that someone you describe as a poor worker with an inappropriate sense of humor is probably not someone the new employee should hang out with.

Her approach was certainly unusual (in my experience), but her motives are not something we can comment on. I would describe it common sense advice, not threatening. Remember that even if you don't know her motives, you don't really know "Mr. Friendly"'s motives either.

You must make more effort to connect ("network") with the other employees. This is a key skill to learn and will help you enormously over the full course of your working life, regardless of what you do or what position you occupy. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Watch and learn how other people communicate as well. These are skills you can learn.

The missing parts of the puzzle will become clearer the more people you mix with, talk with and listen to. Don't be too direct about office politics, but just chat about work, maybe hobbies - neutral things. Be open to their idea and advice, even if you don't necessarily act on it - it helps show people you value them - and some of it could be useful advice. Eventually you'll pick up enough info and tidbits to get a better idea of office politics.

I can't seem to find out why staying in good relation with him (as I have been trying with anyone else with poor results) could hurt my career.

You said :

is generally not full effort into the work and is the first person to enhance conflicts if there appear any

and

his jokes are really out of place every now and then

The only impression people have of you is that you only mix with a poor worker who makes arguments worse and offends some people. This is not the impression you want to give starting out. As we would put it in my part of the world, you "don't want to be tarred with the same brush".

Reduce your contact with this person and work harder to connect with the rest of the staff. It's not easy, but it's important and in the long run it will help you.

3

As others said, it baffles me that HR would do that in an official way. It is unprofessional, in my view, because now one could wonder if HR is watching closely who talks to whom and passing judgement on it - and sharing it to others in scheduled meetings! It is strange at least.

I wonder if there is any kind of social punishment for employees that somehow offends management.

In short term, you could just walk away from this person to avoid being dragged in whatever situation is brewing around them, it would be the most sensible thing to do at this moment to protect yourself from months to years old of problems between this guy and the management.

In medium to long term, you could reevaluate if this is a good environment to develop your career.

And I would not speak about this to anyone in the company, as you do not have the full understanding of office politics. If this is a pervasive thing, you will see other signs of it along the way.

  • 2
    This! She might be well intended, but it portrays a very poor view on the company. This meeting would be far more likely for me to get a negative attitude towards the company than the one not-so-attached guy. This meeting sends the message that a) management is incompetent and judges people by whom they hang out with rather than what they achieve at work, b) if you are perceived a trouble maker by HR, you'll be socially ocstracized c) HR is like the old granny in the neighbour window, spilling whatever sensitive information they come across. – Frank Hopkins Jun 7 at 13:35
  • Considering the fact that management is all highly proficient technical guys and also very busy every day it doesn't seem very probable to me that they actually noticed me getting closer to that guy recently (it's not really long since it started). However, it is not a secret that they are not satisfied with his behaviour, so I don't think they needed to inform HR about it exclusively - she knows the waters well enough. It is entirely speculative what I will say now but I have this thought on the back of my head that this meeting was deliberately inspired by HR herself. – user105494 Jun 7 at 15:55
2

I can't [figure] out why staying in good relation with him... could hurt my career.

People will judge you by the company you keep.
Maybe this is wrong and unfair to the slacker who tells inappropriate jokes... it is still true.

What could the possible motives of the whole matter be? Is HR trying to separate the guy from the other colleagues to convince him to quit himself or is she genuinely trying to protect me?

You've shown promise, so she's taken her HR hat off and given you some straight advice.

Did you notice the other answers that say this is inappropriate for her to do?
She went out on a limb for you, so heed her advice while at work. (Also in your off time - but at least at work.)

Want a good career?

Hang with the "old people" at work, or hang by yourself - but hang with the old people at least sometimes so they can get to know you.
Look interested. Talk less than they do.

Even if it slightly painful to listen to 'old stuff' (which doesn't matter now) people say history repeats itself for a reason. There are lessons/wisdom in some of those stories (even if you have to look hard to find it).

  • She went out of her way to ostracize another employee. If an employee is so bad that you are telling other employees not to associate with them, remove them from the company. The whole situation reeks of HR dysfunction. – Underminer Jun 7 at 15:11
  • @Underminer I agree with the "HR dysfunction" – J. Chris Compton Jun 7 at 17:17
  • @Underminer but the manager hasnt gotten his "vacation" to London yet. Can't we wait a bit ? ;) – mathreadler Jun 10 at 4:24

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