Last night over dinner, my husband told me he had de-friended a colleague on Facebook after the guy posted racial slurs my husband found offensive. The guy never made these kinds of remarks at the office, so my husband had no insight into this side of his coworker's personality. He had lots of Facebook friends, so my polite husband was hoping he wouldn't notice the virtual snub. He felt the de-friending was more visible than setting up a rule to send messages to a junk folder, as he would have done with objectionable e-mails.
My husband certainly isn't the only one finding himself in weird situations on social channels like Facebook and LinkedIn, situations for which there is little guidance in the physical world. Commenting on a sample social networking policy found in IT Business Edge's Knowledge Network, a reader named Mariah wrote:
Is it okay to establish a policy of co-workers not befriending each other on social networking sites? I would welcome it and unfriend many that I accepted because it would have been awkward not to. I have seen managers in my company post some very racy comments/photos and they are friends with their subordinates.
That's an awkward situation for which there's no easy fix, agreed Reihan Salam, author of a Slate article titled "The Facebook Commandments," and Jo Bryant, editor of the popular British etiquette guide Debrett's, two sources interviewed by IT Business Edge's Susan Hall for an article on social networking etiquette. Said Salam:
If you have people in a subordinate position to you, don't put those people in an awkward situation. How can they say no to you? It's just a jerk-y thing to do. You can drop hints that you'd like a friend request from them, but that's probably not even a good idea.
Another of Susan's sources, Large Animal Games CEO Wade Tinney, shared one of my own pet peeves, LinkedIn requests from people who don't know you and don't bother to tell you why they want to connect on LinkedIn. Really people, at least give me something to go on. I got both LinkedIn and Facebook requests from a guy I don't know who doesn't appear to share any professional or industry interests or mutual contacts with me. He's a handsome surfer-type guy, but instead of feeling flattered I feel creeped out.
Employers that try to regulate social networking among employees risk being seen as heavy-handed, as other comments on the sample social networking policy make clear. Wrote Cathy Iconis:
I understand that companies need to protect themselves and the template seems good enough, but we need to remember this is "social" media. The reason this has caught on so well is because we are blurring the lines between work and home. ... If you restrict what your employees can do too much, then I will worry that they will turn on you. Maybe they'll start saying bad things about their employers, maybe morale will lower, etc. By adding more restrictions, you are treating employers as your children and not colleagues and/or peers.
It gets even more complicated for workers who use social channels in the course of their work, like journalists. Lots of folks, including me, knocked Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones earlier this year for issuing overly restrictive social-media rules for its reporters. These social-media guidelines issued by NPR seem more thorough, yet less restrictive. Several of them overlap with those in the sample social networking policy I referred to earlier, which management consultant Daniel Hoang posted on our Knowledge Network.
Susan's article includes some good tips as well. One bit of advice: Set up separate work and personal accounts, if necessary. Great idea, but it's still smart to exercise caution as coworkers could stumble across Internet activities you'd prefer to keep private. As NPR spells out in its guidelines:
Recognize that everything you write or receive on a social media site is public. Anyone with access to the web can get access to your activity on social media sites. And regardless of how careful you are in trying to keep them separate, in your online activity, your professional life and your personal life overlap.