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To ‘friend’ or not: Social media etiquette or liability issue?

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in Centerpiece,Leaders & Managers,People Management

social media friends

by Dorraine A. Larison, Esq., Gray Plant Mooty, St. Cloud, Minnesota

According to a survey conducted by survey site SodaHead and the anonymous feedback site YouTell, the vast majority of people believe an employee should never friend his or her boss on a social network site like Facebook. In fact, 81% of responders rejected the idea. A parallel survey asking whether co-workers should friend each other led to more divided results: 55% pro, 45% con.

From an employment law standpoint, I think the far more interesting question is, “Should a boss friend an employee?”

When I conducted an informal survey of my firm’s attorneys, the resounding response was “NO!” Why? There are personal, business and legal reasons why a boss friending an employee—even one that he or she doesn’t directly supervise—can lead to trouble. Here are some of the concerns.

From a personal perspective

What happens when you learn the employee is violating company policy by posting excessively on work time? You may have to confront your friend about the inappropriate use of work time, or report your friend to another manager.

Either way, it’s awkward, uncomfortable, and could damage your friendship.

From a business perspective

Managers must avoid playing favorites. It leads to distracting morale problems and can sometimes even result in legal claims. If a manager accepts a Facebook friend request from one employee, the manager may have to accept requests from all employees.

In addition, connecting on Facebook may blur the lines between the manager and the subordinate, making it more difficult to manage the employee.

What happens if the employee is terminated and tries to claim that the termination was discriminatory—for example, because of a disability? The employee may argue that the company knew of the disability based on information contained in the employee’s social media posts. Do you really want access to that information?

The same risk can come up in other ways, too. The employee might, for example, claim that the termination was based on his dating someone of another race or joining a specific church and that you, his boss, found out about it through social media.

From a labor law perspective

The news has been filled lately with stories of the dangers of disciplining employees for online complaints about managers, co-workers or other aspects of work. Under federal labor law, nonmanagement employees have the right to engage in group activities—including online posting—to try to improve their working conditions, and this can make many forms of work complaints protected.

If you have access to your friend’s posts, you may have access to his or her protected discussions, too, and your friend may claim that your access led to discipline or discharge.

Benefits of friending?

All of this being said, some argue that there are benefits to creating a social media friendship with a subordinate. Those could include:

  • Helping managers learn about the employee’s interests, which could foster a better relationship with the employee or a better understanding about how to motivate the employee.
  • Making managers appear more approachable to employees who access a manager’s Facebook site.

As you can imagine, I agree with my colleagues that it’s not a good idea for a boss to friend an employee. The risks outweigh any advantages.

If, however, you have a close friendship outside of work and really think that there are other advantages to friending the employee, I would offer the following guidelines to mitigate the risks:

  • The boss should never initiate the request. As a boss, you are in a power position over the employee. If you make the request, the employee may feel obligated to accept.
  • If your subordinate makes the friend request, you should talk candidly about the possible implications of accepting. Make sure the employee knows that you have obligations to the company and that if certain kinds of information is posted you might have to pass it on to others.
  • Maintain the appropriate boundaries. As a boss, comments you make based on protected-class status could violate harassment policies, even if those comments are made during nonwork hours. Likewise, you need to be careful that what you say is not interpreted to be company policy or a statement about the company’s plans for the future.

Even before the age of social media, there was discussion about the appropriate boundaries for relationships between supervisors and those they supervise.

What’s new is the way social media has changed and defined our social interactions, the lack of privacy in online communications, and the potential permanency of social media posts written in indelible electronic ink.

____________________________________________________________________________

Dorraine Larison represents employers in personnel-related matters. You can reach her at (320) 252-4414 or dorraine.larison@gpmlaw.com.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Anne July 7, 2014 at 5:45 pm

I do NOT friend my employees while they are in my department. If I really liked the employee on a personal level, if they move on to bigger and better jobs, I’ll ask to friend them, but I’ve only done that with one person.

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