Friending the boss on social media: Like it or not?

We asked local media experts and workers for their take.

The moment you’ve dreaded has arrived: Your boss has sent you a friend request on Facebook.

What should you do?

The conventional wisdom says friending the boss isn’t a good idea, but that perspective may be changing. In a recent Time magazine online article, Dan Schawbel, described as a “Gen Y career expert,” said he thinks friending the boss on Facebook could actually help your career.

We spoke with several media experts and workers. Some still hold to the conventional wisdom, while others are heading in Schawbel’s direction.

Paul Spiegelman, a Texas author of several books on employee morale, thinks it’s inevitable that we’ll grow more and more connected with coworkers and employers on social media.

“The days of our personal and business lives being completely separate are either heading out, or they’re gone,” he said, echoing Schawbel’s prediction that “in the future, the workplace and society as a whole will be completely transparent.”

Dr. Elliot Gaines, professor of communications at Wright State University, concurs. “We live in a world today where we break down boundaries between institutions and people” through the use of media.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Spiegelman noted that getting to know each other through social media and seeing photos of each other’s families can contribute to a more positive atmosphere in the workplace.

One worker we spoke with agrees. Tresia Johnson, an intake specialist for Alternate Solutions HomeCare in Kettering, said she has several work friends and past employers with whom she’s friends on Facebook, and “if my boss was on Facebook and she wanted to become friends, I would accept.”

But other workers we consulted were more reluctant to friend the boss — or even coworkers. Stephanie Precht, director of public policy and economic development for the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, has received friend requests from coworkers, but “I’ve just told them that it’s a personal choice that I’ve decided to make, to keep my work life separate from my social life.”

Jody Benefiel of Xenia, a nursing home inspector for the state of Ohio, avoids friending coworkers and bosses in part to protect herself: “I would not want to be tempted to talk ‘work’ on my account. For example, I would get in trouble if I shared my assignment location for the week with a coworker. There’s a fine for letting a nursing home know you are coming to do an inspection,” she said. “Anytime you work in healthcare, you have to be careful not to share protected information.”

If you do want to friend the boss, the experts we consulted recommended it only with caveats.

Double-check company policy. Dr. Art Jipson, who teaches sociology and criminal justice at the University of Dayton, noted that some employees such as police officers are specifically barred from using social media, or at least from using it to discuss anything work-related, because of the potential to compromise a criminal investigation.

Even if companies don’t ban social media use, some will issue guidelines or recommendations. While he wouldn’t name the company, Dr. Jipson noted that in his research, he discovered that one local company recently began prohibiting supervisors and employees from friending each other on Facebook because of an incident in which an employee posted something that was “not exactly flattering” about a boss.

The Air Force allows Facebook friendships between supervisors and their underlings, and between officers and enlisted, according to John Scaggs, a public affairs staffer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. But in May, the Air Force did issue a new social media guide addressing topics like how to use social media responsibly, what not to post (in order to avoid jeopardizing lives), how to harness social media for public affairs, and other general considerations.

Use common sense. “If I go to work in a suit and tie every day, I don’t want to post pictures of myself in my underwear watching the football game” if I’m friending the boss, Dr. Gaines said.

Likewise, the employee who “calls in sick and then posts a photo at the 18th green on the golf course” obviously opens himself up to discipline, Spiegelman said.

Don’t divulge company information. Many employees, Dr. Jipson said, don’t realize that some pieces of information, such as your salary, are proprietary company information that you’re not supposed to disclose to other employees.

Recognize that anything you post can end up anywhere. “The locus of control moves from you to other people” anytime you post something, Dr. Jipson said. If you haven’t friended the boss, you might think it’s OK to post a complaint about the boss or a frowny-faced photo of yourself at work, but then a friend clicks “share” and the complaint or photo makes its way back to the boss. And Facebook and other social media sites, in an effort to collect information for advertisers, continually change their privacy settings, Dr. Jipson also noted, meaning your profile might not be as secure as you think it is.

For those who prefer not to friend bosses or coworkers, Spiegelman suggests two ways to handle an unwanted friend request. One is to create two separate Facebook accounts, using one for social life and the other for business networking; the other is to say you simply prefer not to talk shop on social media.

But in general, Spiegelman thinks social media can be a good way for coworkers to connect, and he urges employers to offer a long leash.

“Be willing to be open” when employees express different political viewpoints from yours or post other ideas you might not agree with, he said.

In the end, he said, “the boss/employee relationship is the most important relationship in the company. It’s why people come to work at the company, and it’s why people leave the company.”

And “trust is built on relationship,” whether on Facebook or face to face.

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