Digital Manners


“Now what? My boss has sent me a “friend” request on Facebook.”

Question: I’m lucky that I work for a company where there are several other staffers that I’ve become friendly with. Most Fridays we’ll meet up for a very happy hour of cocktails after work before going our separate ways for the weekend. But here’s the problem: Our boss usually comes along with us, which is fine since our little drinking club is still quasi-professional and no one gets really sh*t faced. Now, though, the boss man has sent me a “friend” request (and several of the others) on Facebook and I don’t want to accept the friendship. But I don’t want to be rude, or (worse) piss him off. Not in this job market. What do I do?

Answer: Even though Halloween has come and gone, let me start by boosting your fear factor. A friend of mine, who is president of a pretty big start-up, had become “friends” with a top manager in accounting. Then one day Mr. President read a status update from the employee that read: “I hate my f*cking job. Can’t wait til the weekend.” Alas, for the poor accountant, his weekend started sooner than anticipated — actually the very next day, when he was fired. And here’s one more horror story: A newish customer service agent I know called in sick to his supervisor and then proceeded to go to the beach with his girlfriend and post photos of his fun-in-the-sun. At an all-hands meeting later that day a Facebook friend (and colleague) of his innocently mentioned the photos along the lines of “I see Tom’s having a great day off at the beach.” But here’s the kicker: Tom’s supervisor was within earshot — and the sick day truly became a headache.

So what do you do? You’re in a tricky spot right now, but it was your boss who made the misstep because he broke a simple Facebook rule: Don’t friend anyone who works for you because it puts that person in a difficult position (as you’re finding out). If you manage a specific group, that’s all those who report to you — directly and indirectly. If you’re the CEO, then it’s everyone in the company.

The underlying problem is that we’re all confused about the contemporary work world — especially the difference between what I’d call being “friendly” and “friends.” And there’s a world of difference even though it often seems that they’ve become completely blurred by having happy hours such as the one you describe, even the sometimes requisite golf outings, spa days, and other team building activities.

To get some additional perspective I asked Peter Vincent, who is Head of Human Resources at Time Inc. for his advice:

“I would never "friend" someone on my staff, as it puts them in an awkward position,” he says. “I’ve encouraged people with whom I have a mostly work relationship to connect with me on LinkedIn, and have tried (not always successfully) to limit Facebook to people I have a social, true friend relationship with.”

In fact, LinkedIn is a great option for connecting in the professional sphere and for those who want a clear demarcation between their work and private lives. In your circumstance, I’d suggest you send an e-mail like this back to your boss: “I hope you don’t mind but I prefer to keep my office life separate from my personal one. How about connecting on LinkedIn?”

(Some of my real friends have been creating groups on Facebook and Google+, which they think provide the requisite protection. I don’t have such high confidence in these services’ privacy settings, especially when it comes to real time blabbermouths who don’t always thing before they speak.)

And one last piece of advice: Don’t ignore the request. As Time Inc.’s Peter Vincent e-mailed me: “That would send a message open to interpretation — and not a good one.”

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