To Friend or Not to Friend

Our online lives are increasingly enmeshed in our real-world lives, including at work. Where does this leave the rules for social media etiquette between bosses and employees?

A collage of office workers surrounded by social media icons.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

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There’s a very easy answer to the question of whether you should follow your boss or your employees on social media. Unfortunately, that answer is: It depends. It depends on your industry, it depends on your company, it depends on your relationship with the people in question, and it probably also depends on all sorts of other things that are going to vary from person to person and platform to platform. Still, no one can fault modern workers for wanting at least a few guidelines about how to manage the virtual connections that overlay their workplace ones, if only to give themselves a sense of what they might be getting into and how they might be able to get themselves out. So I surveyed friends, co-workers, and Slate readers about interacting with their bosses on social media in the hopes of homing in on some guidelines. Here are some of my takeaways:

Bosses should wait to be friended rather than do the friending.

Here’s a little secret for the majority of us out there who aren’t bosses: Your boss probably already has a policy against making the first move to friend or follow you. “I accept Facebook friend requests from subordinates, but do not send them,” one survey respondent wrote. “I make clear to everyone who works for me that they are perfectly welcome to privacy and I am never offended by not being ‘friends’ on Facebook. If they invite me, I accept.” Several bosses in the survey echoed this strategy of not initiating contact, and it’s pretty easy to see why it’s a smart one: It gives employees space to decide on their own whether they want to share anything at all. However, if this rule goes unspoken, it might also leave certain employees wondering why the boss is friends with everyone but them. That’s a hurdle that can be cleared by asking another co-worker, but it does point to how weird these questions can feel. Why does it seem so much easier to hit a button and see what happens than to just say, “Hey, is it OK if I follow you?”

It’s OK to be choosy.

If you don’t want to be friends with your boss or your subordinates and you don’t have to be for any reason, then, guess what … don’t do it! As long as you go about it in a relatively sane way, no one will even bat an eyelash. As one survey respondent put it, “I’ll only add people (co-worker, employee, boss, etc.) if I actually talk to them casually and like them as people. … In the past, I’ve deleted executives who have added me on social media, but are too snooty to say hello when you are around them.” Your profile, your choice! And in most workplaces, this is absolutely fine. Alison Green, of Ask a Manager fame, has even given recommendations for clearly stating that you like to keep social media and work separate if anyone ever says anything about it.

Of course, there is also room to genuinely like your bosses or subordinates and want to follow them and engage with them on social media. One survey taker wrote, “I am very friendly with my bosses and will follow them on any platform in a heartbeat provided they are similarly inclined.” With that kind of mutual-appreciation society, who wouldn’t follow back?

Because social media is increasingly a real and tangible part of our work, these lines are often blurry.

Even if you’re firmly in the camp of never ever crossing your work and social media streams, sometimes it simply can’t be avoided. If you work in the field of social media itself, for example, you might be expected to use your personal accounts to access certain professional tools, or you might have to friend your boss or colleagues in order to be granted administrative privileges. One survey respondent wrote of his or her boss, “We have to be Facebook friends in order to manage the organization page. Other than that, I try to avoid it.” Even if you don’t work in a social-adjacent field, you might still find yourself bearing some social media responsibilities—it is 2018, after all. And you might not like it—as another survey response said, “My boss asked me to share company promotions on my personal page. The request violated my work-home boundary.” Unfortunately, this kind of thing is not uncommon, and as long as the request isn’t totally unreasonable, you might have to grin and bear it.

In certain fields, the way social media intersects with work is inherently fuzzy. In journalism, for example, there’s no rule (at least at Slate) that you have to promote your work on social media, but it’s obviously something you should do, both to get your work seen and to build your own public profile. Beyond self-promotion, social media responsibilities can even include keeping up with what your boss posts. “Once the boss is on Twitter you feel an obligation to keep up with it so you are aware when the boss brings up Twitter posts at work,” one of the survey takers said. Even in nonmedia fields, one of the consequences of our social media age is that, increasingly, everyone is expected to be interested in building his or her “brand.” And sometimes you want part of your professional brand to be that you also have personal interests, which might mean rounding out your feed with posts about the news or pop culture as long as you keep it appropriate. (If you want your brand to be appropriate, that is; some people build their brands on being inappropriate, which is a whole other thing.) As one survey answer read, “My institution often retweets our research-oriented tweets (which also reinforces Twitter as a ‘professional image’ so I would never post anything non-professional on there).” When the personal-brand mindset intersects with casual workplaces, the result is that it’s expected that people will follow each other on all their social media.

Limiting what people can see is fine.

This can be a saving grace when work encourages social media interaction. Facebook allows you to set custom privacy settings so that not all your friends can see the same level of information about you—go ahead and take full advantage of them. And don’t sleep on less-well-known features. One survey respondent wrote that she figured out how to limit what her boss can see on her Instagram: “For Instagram, my boss can see my official feed but not my Stories.” It’s the mullet of privacy strategies: business in the feed, party in the Stories.

Just because you’re following each other on one place doesn’t mean another social network is fair game.

Just like in your nonwork relationships, there are different standards for different mediums. “Twitter, I consider public,” one manager said in response to my survey. One person’s totally public space is another’s closed-off feed, though; some people don’t have Twitter but basically consider Facebook public at this point: “I’m more open to friending on Facebook than Instagram,” another person said. “I post less frequently on Facebook, and a lot of family and extended acquaintances are on it so it’s not that personal.” In the same vein, another person offered, “Once your parents and aunts and uncles follow you, I figure your boss can see the same stuff!” These will likely continue to evolve and diverge by industry over time; just because Instagram is considered intimate by some these days doesn’t mean that couldn’t completely change over the next few years.

Also, don’t forget about LinkedIn. One manager who was averse to most social networking made an exception for LinkedIn: “LinkedIn is OK, because it is a professional development site.” But even in the case of harmless-seeming LinkedIn, your actions can be interpreted in unforeseen ways: “If someone asks to connect with me on LinkedIn I definitely assume they are looking for another job and get very suspicious,” a different manager offered—one who works in journalism, for what it’s worth.

Sometimes it’s not you or your boss who’s the problem; it’s everyone else.

It’s worth remembering as you worry about interacting with your boss online that your boss might end up being the least of your problems. A bunch of survey takers reported that even when they’re not taking part, their colleagues oversharing made them feel awkward on social media: “I don’t frequently use my Snapchat, but I’ve seen a fellow teacher or two post some CRAZY videos while out drinking and partying,” one said. Another: “I have found that some of my prior employees (from prior workplaces) overshared or sometimes complained about work in ways that made me uncomfortable.” Another survey taker felt aggrieved by “co-workers venting on social media then expecting that we will all be discreet.” Aside from the lesson that social media can be just as stressful as real life, take these as cautionary tales: It’s often hard to remember how public these posts really are. You probably can’t change how other people use the networks, but you can and should mute liberally if you don’t want to deal with them bringing you down. No such button exists in the office, so enjoy it where you can.

Breaking the social media veil can weird people out.

Maybe social media is a little like Fight Club in that you’re not supposed to talk about it outside of it. A few survey respondents reported feeling uneasy when their bosses or subordinates discussed online happenings IRL. “My advisor mentioned how fun a social event I attended looked and it just made me feel weird to know she was noticing my personal life,” one response said. Another reported, “I once had a subordinate send me one or two pictures that they found on my Facebook because they found it funny—we were not Facebook friends at the time. I found this really uncomfortable and kind of invasive for some reason, even though I know that most people (including me) privately look up their co-workers on social media.” Both of these instances seem like cases of the parties having differing boundaries with people they don’t know well or consider close and social media coming in and making it even weirder. No one should have access to a whole archive of pictures of his or her boss at the tip of his or her fingers, but since many of us do now, there’s inevitably some unclearness about how that should be navigated. Based on these anecdotes and the principle of erring on the side of caution generally, it’s probably best to lean toward not reminding people how much you know about them and how many pictures you’ve seen of them—even if it’s hard to keep your mouth shut.

Consider adopting the “nothing is private anymore anyway” school of thought.

Have you heard the wisdom that you should never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t want printed in a newspaper? This is definitely the case with social media these days. While I would question the news judgment of a newspaper fashioning an article out of some of the things I post on social media (Area Woman Shares a Harmless Article She Enjoyed!), it’s true that technically it’s all fair game. Personally, I have no problem friending my higher-ups because I’m not going to say anything inappropriate anyway, not when I hold everything to the standard that it’s basically public. You want your social media posts to reflect you, sure—but it’s probably best for them to be uncontroversial enough that you can imagine your boss or your employees, or, at least, an idealized version of them, hitting the like button on every single one.

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