It is one of the most socially awkward situations at the office.
You’re talking to your boss or co-worker, when they casually ask to be your friend on Facebook.
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You quickly think of the juicy comments posted on your wall, or that photo of you gulping margaritas in a bathing suit. Within seconds, you have to decide between saying ‘yes’ or finding a way to decline the offer without hurting anyone’s feelings (or your chance at a promotion).
It has happened regularly to a 28-year-old public relations worker in Winnipeg we’ll call Nathalie. She doesn’t want her real name used for obvious reasons.
“Your boss doesn’t need to see what you're doing on the weekend,” she said.
“There are lines and there are boundaries. The only co-workers that are my Facebook friends are people that would be hanging out with me.”
Nathalie has become rather adept at sidestepping workplace requests for Facebook friendship. She tells some co-workers she rarely uses Facebook. She has told others she would add them as friends, knowing she would not follow through, and has feigned ignorance in subsequent conversations.
Nathalie has also set her privacy settings so that she is hidden from people searching for her on Facebook. Her photos, writings and other material can only be viewed by her friends.
The workplace is gaining more of a presence on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites. Companies are starting to see value in having a presence on Web 2.0. Many have set up corporate Facebook pages and have let employees know that they can become fans — an action that can make your Facebook page more visible to co-workers.
But should you feel obliged to open your social network page to coworkers? Not necessarily, says one expert.
“You have the same obligation as you would have if they wanted to be invited to your home for cocktails or for a dinner party,” said Arthur Schafer, a professor at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics.
“It might be prudent to promote collegial relations or to curry favour with the boss by socializing with them ... but you certainly have no obligation to.”
Facebook has added new privacy options recently, allowing users to hide individual posts or pictures from specific friends. Of course, even if no one at work can see your Facebook page, they can still find out what’s on it. It happened earlier this year to a twenty-something woman we’ll call Susan, who also doesn’t want her name used.
Susan was upset with what she felt was a lack of security and cleanliness at a community event in Winnipeg. She complained about it on her Facebook page, which is only visible to her 500-odd friends.
As it turns out, one of those friends was an employee of the event’s organizers, who are clients of Susan’s employer. Word got around and Susan found herself facing a tongue-lashing from her boss.
It raises the question, do employers have the right to discipline workers who slag them, the company or a client in quasi-public areas such as Facebook? In some cases, the answer seems to be yes.
“Do I have the right to discipline? I would say not, unless it’s directly damaging to the company — saying ‘This product is fraudulent,’ for example,” said John Melnyck, who teaches management ethics at the University of Winnipeg’s business faculty.
Both professors agree that it is important to remember that anything posted online, even behind strict privacy settings, can make its way into the public sphere.
And that perhaps explains why people are reluctant to open their social networking pages to co-workers or superiors. Melnyck recently conducted an experiment on that front.
He asked students in one of his classes, en masse, to make him a friend on Facebook.
“It was a pretty even split of opinion,” Melnyck chuckled. “Some people had no hesitation, other people said ‘no way.’”