How social media muddies the professional waters

Article by Lyndall Crisp /
Qantas Magazine /
May 1, 2017 /
Click here to view original /

BE FRIENDLY with everyone, friends with no-one. It’s sage advice when navigating office politics, where the line between professional and personal relationships can be distorted. But the definition of “friend” has changed with the advent of social media. Is it appropriate for an employee to be friends with their boss on Facebook? Should the boss ignore the request?

To avoid any trouble, Dr Stefan Volk from The University of Sydney Business School recommends that an employer suggest the employee “connect” with them on LinkedIn instead. “Then it’s not a rejection as such but puts it on a more professional level.”

This online dilemma is a relatively new one, says Volk, who’s researching leader/ subordinate issues. Somewhere between too friendly and aloof, he says, “you can provide your followers with a vision and the belief that you are genuinely interested in them”.

How friendly you should be depends on the industry. Tech companies such as Dropbox and Google have built an office culture that fosters friendships at work. Others remain vigilant about possible transgressions. Telstra, for example, has compulsory social media training for its 33,000 staff members and the Commonwealth Bank’s more than 50,000 employees are about to get updated advice. “At banks, [befriending a direct report] may seem much less appropriate than at a small startup, where being seen on Facebook is probably acceptable,” says Volk.

The permanency of a social media post is another matter to consider. It’s not only your staff but also future employers who might see things you wouldn’t include on your résumé.

Friday-night drinks and the occasional swapping of family or holiday stories can be an acceptable part of office culture but the role of the boss must remain in sharp focus.

“A blend of personal and professional relations muddies the waters at the best of times,” says Anthony Mason, a manager in KPMG’s Social Media Intelligence Group, who highlights the “potentially negative powers” of social networking. “It’s the boss who needs to be careful; the leader is held to a higher standard and sets the cultural tone of a team.”

While the inexperienced might friend widely in the belief that they are networking, says Mason, senior staff will likely have an “all or none” rule. This eliminates the possibility of causing offence by declining friend requests. “It’s an unrealistic ideal but bosses should avoid connections [with staff] on networks such as Facebook.”

The stakes are raised when one friend becomes another’s direct report. A manager who worked for the same company as his friend of 20 years said that on the day he was promoted, the two set strict guidelines. “I never shared confidential information with him and recused myself when it came to his performance review,” he says. “If anything, I came down harder on him so no-one could accuse me of favouritism.”

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences, says an employer should think carefully before entering a friendship – in the real world and online – with someone whose pay, holiday time and promotions they control. For one, she does not accept invitations to students’ social events. “Do you really want the person who makes decisions about your career at your wedding?” she asks.