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posted: 6/17/2012 7:45 AM

Work advice: When venting blows back on you

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Editor's note: Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.

Q: I [kvetched] about a friend from work -- it wouldn't qualify as [kvetching], really; most of it related to her behavior at work, which affected the professional atmosphere -- to my human resources manager. Later, however, I had a falling-out with the HR manager, who used my statements against me. Not only did she disclose everything to my friend, but she also accused me of wanting to sabotage my friend's career. I've cleared the air with top management, but still feel guilty. How do I get over this? I've lost a good friendship and harbor a lot of resentment for my HR manager. I've considered quitting, but I would lose a great job. The HR manager has been reprimanded, but I don't want to see her face again.

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A: Hmm. I'm struggling to reconcile your actions with your concept of a "good friendship." As I understand it, friends gossip about friends from time to time (I don't, of course, but I've heard as much). But friends shouldn't complain about friends at their mutual workplace unless they're seeking resolution of a work-related issue that they can't achieve through a one-on-one conversation. If they're just venting, the last place to do it is with the Powers That Be.

OK, I'm done scolding. We've all let our shoulder-demons lure us into saying hurtful things around untrustworthy people. (Again, so I've heard.)

It may help to know that your HR manager's behavior was "close to career suicide" in the view of Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion with the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management. "Who in that company is going to want to go to HR with a problem now?" When you first complained to the HR representative, Peterson said, she should have asked whether you were lodging a formal complaint, which would require her to take action, or just venting to her on a personal level, in which case she should have declined to engage if she couldn't guarantee discretion.

But shouldn't the friend know what was said about her workplace behavior? Perhaps -- but it could have been conveyed more diplomatically, without divulging the source, Peterson said. By using your confidence to sow discord, the HR person dealt a fatal blow to your friendship -- and to her professional reputation.

As for your own reputation, a humble apology to your former friend, maybe cc'ing management, might help make amends. Even if the friendship is beyond salvation, and even if your complaints were justified, surely an "I did a stupid thing, and I'm sorry I hurt you" is in order. Crow is never a tasty dish, but it goes down easier while it's still warm -- especially when you've prepared it yourself. (You can, ahem, take my word for it.)

• 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.

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