When Bosses Want to be 'Friends'

While some companies are using Facebook and other social-media platforms to augment the ties that bind their workers together, new research finds many employees would feel reluctant at best to say "yes" to a friend request from their boss.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013
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So you check your Facebook page and there it is: a request from your boss, asking to be added to your network of friends. What should you do?

Although Facebook was originally intended for college-age users, today that group makes up less than half of the social network's members, while the number of users age 35 and older keeps growing. This mix of generations on Facebook, not to mention the sheer number of companies that use the social network for marketing and outreach, means it's increasingly likely that employees will be confronted with this particular dilemma, according to three college professors who recently wrote an analysis titled A Facebook 'Friend' Request from the Boss: Too Close for Comfort? 

Some companies have turned to Facebook to strengthen ties within the organization, including a Silicon Valley firm that instituted "Facebook Fridays" to encourage the company's 800 employees to set aside time at the end of the workweek to get to know their geographically dispersed coworkers via the medium.

Even so, most users continue to use Facebook primarily for keeping in touch with friends and family, write the researchers, who include Joy Van Eck Paluchette, a management professor at Australia's University of Wollongong; Katherine Karl of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; and Jason Fertig of the University of Southern Indiana. In this context, they write, many employees would feel reluctant at best to say "yes" to a friend request from their boss.

However, many employees -- particularly members of Generation Y -- would feel perfectly fine accepting their manager into their social network -- and in the future, doing so will be much more common, says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Boston-based consulting firm, and a career columnist for Time and Forbes.

For his upcoming book, Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success, Schawbel reviewed 4 million Facebook profiles of millennial-age users. Their networks averaged 700 friends, he says, and an average of 16 was made up of co-workers.

"The line between work and personal will continue to get more and more blurred, and people are going to be more comfortable being Facebook friends with their managers," says Schawbel.

The analysis' authors agreed, citing other studies that show Gen Y tends to see their relationships with bosses and mentoring opportunities as the "most important factor in their work satisfaction." They cite a 2011 study that found only 28 percent of employees aged 18 to 34 believed it was inappropriate to friend their supervisor on Facebook, compared to 50 percent of those 45 and older. The study, titled Making the Connection: How Facebook is Changing the Supervisory Relationship, by Minneapolis-based consulting firm Russell Herder, found that 21 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed were friends with their bosses on Facebook.

The nature of how people use Facebook continues to evolve, says Schawbel, with more users relying on the medium for job-searching and professional collaboration as well as socializing and re-connecting. He cites a recent Jobvite survey that found more people finding jobs on Facebook than LinkedIn.

"Facebook is becoming, in a sense, a blend of the personal and professional," he says.

As for privacy, Schawbel thinks younger workers tend to have a more relaxed definition of that than older generations.

"This idea of the nine-to-five workplace is being broken apart as we speak," he says. "I think a lot of the things people tend to worry about now are not going to be big concerns in the future. Think about the sheer amount of information people willingly share online now -- you would never have thought this was possible seven years ago. In the future, we're not going to care as much about privacy."

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However, David Spencer says he's "mystified" by the willingness of anyone to be Facebook friends with any of the people they work with, let alone the people who supervise them.

"I'm fascinated by the fact that this is even happening," says Spencer, senior vice president of business development at Corbus, a Miamisburg, Ohio-based consulting firm. "I would never do that. I draw a line between work and social and can't imagine being Facebook friends with any of my coworkers."

He chalks up this willingness among Gen Y members to "having not gone through the pain" of career setbacks and job loss.

"The personal and the professional have long been segregated for good reason," says Spencer. Many social-network users aren't old enough yet to have seen what can happen when things that happen outside of work are posted for all to see, including bosses, and the inevitable repercussions ensue, he says.

Many Gen Y employees have a limited understanding of how what happens online can affect careers, job prospects and how potential employers may view them, he says. This lack of critical thinking among younger employees is something HR needs to address, says Spencer, who recently wrote a white paper on the subject titled Getting to Generation "Why?"

For their part, the university professors suggest that bosses and supervisors not send their employees a friend request on Facebook or any similar medium. The evidence, they write, indicates that many employees would be uncomfortable receiving such requests. They also suggest that managers decline friend requests from subordinates in favor of connecting on LinkedIn instead.

Schawbel agrees that employees uncomfortable with admitting their bosses to their Facebook networks should suggest connecting on LinkedIn instead, with the explanation that they like to keep their work and private lives separate. But even this may pose a potential risk, he says.

"Many people use LinkedIn to search for new jobs, so you'll need to be aware of who's in your network and who can see your activities before you do that," he says.

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