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Social Media Boundaries in the Workplace

By Polly Toledo

“Help my boss just sent me a friend request!”

Only slightly less awkward than receiving a friend request from your grandmother is receiving one from your boss.

In today’s world of friends and followers, many of us are living in a grey area when it comes to personal and professional social media boundaries.

There is no question that social media is an invaluable tool particularly for people in the arts and culture fields. Many of us use it as a way to promote our work, follow colleagues’ work, and stay up to date on the latest trends in the field. But are there rules when it comes to people you know professionally requesting to “friend” or “follow” you?

I recently reached out to a group of colleagues and asked them the same question. Everyone remembered the days when hierarchical company protocols demanded the stark separation between their employees personal and professional lives and all agreed that on social media not only does that line blur, it has ceased to be completely relevant.

People’s approach to navigating this was varied and based on personal choice.  A few people claimed to keep a firm separation between personal and professional contacts, using specific platforms for each. For example many use Facebook for personal and use LinkedIn and Twitter for professional. Instagram it seems is in a field of its own, with people either not sure if they are maintaining boundaries, not concerned with it, or using it to cultivate their own personal brand.

Others stated that they were not concerned with the overlapping of personal and professional connections and a few even claimed to carefully curate their social media content to be work safe regardless of who follows them (i.e making sure none of their friends post pics from Spring Break 2005). Ultimately it was noted that it comes down to individual choice.

It was also noted that things can get complicated when there is the risk that your own personal views could be associated with your organization. Some institutions have policies that ask their employees to provide a disclaimer on their profiles letting their followers know that the views expressed are solely their own.

In 2013 a few researchers wrote a great paper on the topic, “When Worlds Collide in Cyberspace: How Boundary Work in Online Social Networks Impacts Professional Relationships.  In it the authors outline four different boundary management styles for social media. They can be broken down as follows:

Boundary Management Style

   Example

Open

  • Public profiles.
  • No separation of professional and personal contacts.
  • Let it all out there, the good, the bad, and the controversial.
  • Your friends are tagging you in those Spring Break pics.

Audience

  • Private accounts. You deny requests from professional contacts.
  • You use specific platforms for a specific audience, i.e. LinkedIn for professional and Facebook strictly private.
  • What gray area? There is no gray area.

Content

  • You allow both personal and professional contacts to follow you but carefully curate the content you post and are associated with.
  • You keep your posts PC.
  • You only post or tag pics that are work safe.

Hybrid

  • Accept both personal and professional contacts but create lists that separate the two, only allowing certain lists to see certain content.
  • Tell your friends not to post any embarrassing stuff because your boss follows you!
  • Adulting is hard..(but don’t post an update crying about it).

Let’s be honest, I am sure tSuccess Kidhe most common management style is open, which is fine as long as you recognize that it is not without its risks. A good rule of thumb is don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t do in person. People have lost careers because of things they have posted online.Also consider that the internet knows no bounds. That stuff reaches far and wide and may never go away. Remember Success Kid? Well that kid is ten years old and that meme is still out there!

If you use the open boundary style know that it’s very likely that venting on FB about your job after a couple glasses of wine will get back to your employer. So maybe don’t. (And FYI, even if you don’t use this style there is the possibility of it getting back to your boss).

Ask yourself what you are comfortable with your professional contacts knowing about you and decide which boundary management style is right for you. Maybe you have that sort of relationship with your boss. If you need Facebook to be able to vent then keep it private. If you aren’t worried about it then go right ahead.

But remember, with great power there must come great responsibility. Act wisely.