To Friend or Not to Friend (On Facebook)

Is adding your colleagues to your Facebook a bigger risk or reward? I share my experiences and give some advice on how to proceed.

I thought I’d take a bit of a break from the Security+ over the three day weekend and discuss something that I’ve gone back and forth with at every job I’ve had: Whether or not you should friend your boss and work colleagues on Facebook.

A Little Background

Facebook came out when I was in college, and I’ve had kind of a fraught relationship with it. At one point, I deleted my account entirely due to harassment from another student in the graduate school. I only re-activated the account because my other friends used it to organize gatherings (which the harasser was not invited to). By that time Facebook had introduced the block user feature, which came in very handy to keep the harasser in check since he never had the nerve to actually harass me in any other way then while hiding behind a keyboard. But that initial experience definitely impacted how I use the platform.

Today, I mainly use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends. My family is located back in Michigan, as are most of the friends from high school I still keep in touch with. My college friends have scattered across the US, and I also have friends from college who are international and often traveling from country to country. Despite all of its flaws, Facebook is the easiest way to keep in touch with them all. I prefer to keep Facebook limited to these groups in part due to my past experience with it, and in part due to other factors I will discuss.

But once I joined the working world, I promptly found that having this type of “Keep the personal personal” view when it came to Facebook was not only not the norm…it could lead to a lot of unnecessary drama. Here are some of my experiences trying to navigate these tricky waters.

Experience 1: The Badgering Boss

I hadn’t been in my first after-college job very long before my boss started sending me friend requests on Facebook. My initial response was to ignore the requests. I did not know her very well, and after the experience with the harasser in college I had firmly decided not to friend people that I do not actually consider to be friends in real life.

Not long after the requests started, my boss started asking about why I had not responded to her requests. Being young and less than confident in myself, I mumbled out something about not seeing it, but that I would check. I did not want to have conflict with my boss so soon after starting my job, especially since I was without a car in central Kansas and had literally no way to get back home if this job disappeared. I was completely at her mercy for my job, which paid just enough to have me go into low income forbearance on my student loans and make sure that the best eating I could afford was from the Dollar Store within walking distance of my rental.

When I did not respond to the Friend request within a week, the passive aggressive comments started. “Oh, Maggie won’t friend me. She must not like me!” or “Maggie must have something to hide! I wonder what it is!”  or “You must be looking for another job and that’s why you won’t friend me!” and the like. After several weeks of these what I now recognize as bullying tactics, I finally relented and added her as a friend.

I regretted it almost immediately. Not only did I feel the need to start censoring myself and my thoughts on my own profile because my boss could see them, I had to worry about things others might post. At one point, a misunderstanding between one of my good friends from college and my boss erupted into a Facebook Comment War, and I had to delete the post, apologize to my friend for my boss’s behavior and try and explain to my boss that everything had been a misunderstanding. The stress from this event, combined with being under immense financial stress and completely isolated from any support system nearly caused me to relapse into anxiety attacks I had experienced in graduate school.

I promptly removed my boss from my Facebook Friends list. Mercifully, this is when things had really started to go downhill at the office and my boss was too busy creating work drama to even notice I had removed her.

Experience 2: The Work Frenemies

In my next job, feeling exhausted and anxious after the previous experience, I held off on Friending any of my new work colleagues on Facebook for as long as I could. I had gotten a bit more confident since my first experience and told them that I liked to keep my work life separate from my personal life, and for the most part they seemed to understand.

I quickly began to realize that there might be a cost to this approach. The group I had joined was pretty cliquey; most of them had been in their positions for between 3-7 years together at that point. I was the definite outsider in the group, and I knew that I would need to try and fit in to survive and advance my career in this new workplace. Eventually I did add them to my Facebook Friends, but only after Facebook had released the Friends List feature where you could add people into groups and then control what things those groups could see.

The Friends List feature was a godsend for this situation. I felt like I didn’t need to censor myself quite as much, because I could control what types of posts they would see. But they would still see that I had accepted their requests. I had hoped that this might help me be accepted more into the group, while at the same time allowing me to keep my own identity. Plus, the Friends List feature allowed me to not worry that my political beliefs as a bright blue dot in a deep red state would hurt my career if they discovered our different points of view.

By that time we were all Facebook Friends, and my teammates were acting on the platform like I was a part of the group….but I was most definitely not accepted as a part of the group in real life. Just one example: A teammate was in town for a project, I offered to take her to dinner. She feigned fatigue and said she was going back to the hotel after a long day being onsite with a client. My husband and I went out for dinner that night…only to discover that same teammate also out to dinner at the same restaurant with two others from my department. To say it was an awkward situation would be an understatement. My husband was livid at their rude behavior and exclusion of me, but I convinced him not to say anything to them. Knowing they’d been caught, they did reluctantly offer to let us join them, which I politely declined.

Over the next few years, I matured in myself and in my role. My work performance was stellar and my clients and project teams gave me rave reviews, even requesting to work with me on different types of projects over others. My teammates acted like they were friends. But while I was succeeding in my job, I knew I was firmly outside the clique and I was very careful in how I interacted with them for my own sanity and the protection of my career and reputation. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed the behavior.

At one point, my teammates exclusion of me from the group was so obvious at a company event that several people from another department came up to me and asked me if something was going on, because even they had noticed that my teammates were treating me like a modern day leper.

My decision to exclude my teammates from 90% of my activity on Facebook justified itself over and over again as I watched them and others gossip about people in the company based on what they had seen on Facebook. On several occasions, Facebook became a weapon that was used by people at varying levels against others. I was relieved that I had chosen to keep them at arms length, especially on Facebook, because I knew what I was dealing with. They were frenemies…friends to your face but perfectly happy to stab you in the back if it could help them, and I was not willing to give them anything to help them take down myself or others.

When I accepted a new job offer, before I had even put in my notice I immediately went on a Facebook purge, removing all of my team members from my Facebook. None of them noticed I was no longer connected to them. My old boss even commented that we would “stay in touch on Facebook”, not realizing that I had deleted her from my friends list three weeks prior. I am grateful for the experience of working in what was a truly challenging work environment because it taught me a lot about how to navigate the waters of workplace politics, and why Facebook and work shouldn’t mix.

Should You Mix Facebook and Work?

Ultimately, this is a decision that is up to you. Depending on how you see and use Facebook, it can be a good tool for connecting with people and getting to know them. This can be great for bonding and building a team. But if you are going to add your colleagues, it is a good idea to add them to a group or friends list where you can control what they can see.

As for myself, I continue to keep my private life separate from my work life. I have not Friended any teammates at my current job on Facebook; refreshingly I have not felt any pressure to. I continue to view the risks as not worth the rewards. Between the risk of your employer discovering information about you that could be prejudicial to your career advancement (think political beliefs, major health issues or other unprotected characteristics) to the risk of just general fights between friends and colleagues over a post or a joke, in my view it is far easier and more beneficial to keep a wall between your friends and your work.


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