Let’s face it – regardless of whether you are the summer intern, the manager, or the CEO of your organization, everyone stares out into the same social media minefield and wonders about the etiquette and appropriateness of connecting with work colleagues online.
Things are a little bit clearer on LinkedIn and Twitter. With LinkedIn, the objective is to present yourself in the best possible way to your boss, your customers, or potential employers. With Twitter, we are essentially broadcasting little 140-character snapshots about ourselves for anyone to see. If a work colleague decides to add you on LinkedIn or to follow you on Twitter, it shouldn’t feel like an intrusion.
Facebook is different!
Granted, a few years ago the distinction was much clearer. Facebook was a place for you share updates, photographs, and other content with friends and family. For the 9-5 weekday warriors, Facebook was the safe-space where you could vent about work and long for the weekend. Facebook was a place to let your guard down and be ‘yourself’ among those you trusted. Until recently, millennials were pretty skeptical about connecting with their colleagues online. A 2012 study found that a millennial had an average of 700 Facebook friends, but were typically only connected with 16 colleagues. Furthermore, 64% of millennials did not list their employer on Facebook. These statistics indicate that our Facebook personas had very little to do with our professional personas.
Many experts speculated why we were so reluctant to connect with colleagues online. Some argued that social circles are complicated and that in its earlier years Facebook simply didn’t understand this complexity. We often wear different ‘hats’ in different settings. How we behave around our family is different to how we behave around our college friends, which (hopefully) is very different to how we behave in work. We complain about our colleagues to our family and friends, and sometimes we may even complain about our family and friends to anyone that will listen in work. It seemed unnatural to have all of these constituencies in one giant online pool.
Prof. Art Markman of the University of Texas at Austin, argued that we are rarely explicit with other about the nature of our relationships. It is possible to be very friendly with someone in a work environment, but never get close enough to be a lifelong friend. Consider this the next time you go to a colleague’s wedding, where it is easy to be reminded that there are different tiers of friendship and work ‘friends’ is one small subset or table at the wedding.
Given the asymmetry of the relationship, this awkwardness is especially pronounced when you consider whether you want to be connected with your direct boss online. Another 2012 study found that 20% of respondents were connected with their boss on Facebook. The same study showed that there was a direct correlation between age and one’s comfort with being Facebook friends with your direct supervisor (72% of 18-34 year olds were comfortable with the idea, whereas the majority of 35-54 year olds thought that it would inappropriate).
Until recently, there was an implicit understanding that Facebook was personal, whereas LinkedIn and Twitter (to a lesser extent) was professional.
I would argue that this divide between the personal and the professional has been changed due to two factors. Firstly, there is simply a larger percentage of the workforce using social media in 2017 than there was a few years ago. The 2017 workforce is much more open to idea of being connected with their co-workers and supervisors online and they are more savvy and conscious of the privacy settings on Facebook. Secondly, alternative social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat have provided us with an outlet to be a little bit weird with friends, without indulging our entire Facebook network.
These changes mean that advice that was once offered to colleagues pondering whether to accept their boss’s friend request is outdated and needs to be revisited:
The Traditional School of Thought:
- Only connect with colleagues who you know and trust.
- Avoid connecting with your direct supervisor.
- Paint yourself in a positive light – scrub your profile for ‘incriminating’ photos and remove or de-tag questionable content.
The 2017 School of Thought:
- Instead of some arbitrary rules based on a rigid hierarchical structure, connect with the colleagues and supervisors you respect and like: the first thing to remember is that the ‘friending’ decision is a whole lot less consequential than it appears. The reality is that some people are connected with hundreds or thousands of people that they don’t really ‘know’. If you are a user that is very selective about your connections, they are unlikely to notice or mind that you ignored their friend request.
- Weigh up the benefits: consider the culture of your organization and if appropriate, try to blend your personal online image and your professional in-person image – many organizations argue that colleagues that are connected online in a personal way, experience benefits in terms of team dynamics, communication and how we perceive each other.
- Instead being concerned about how you ‘paint yourself’, be yourself*: you can paint yourself in a positive light on LinkedIn, but you should be yourself on Facebook. Okay, keep the wacky stuff for Snapchat or the photos of your brunch for Instagram, but don’t be afraid to be yourself on Facebook. If you find yourself crossing a line, take another look at the privacy settings and utilize the more intuitive 2017 version of Facebook to group your colleagues accordingly.