Social Networks Complicate Relations Between Bosses and Employees

Corporate use of FaceBook and other Web 2.0 tools blurs line between work and home.

by / July 26, 2009 0

"Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work," tweeted a Twitterer known as "theconnor," a San Francisco Bay Area job seeker.

"Who is the hiring manager? I'm sure they would love to know that you will hate the work. We here at Cisco are versed in the Web," responded a Twitterer known as "timmylevad," a.k.a. Tim Levad, a business development manager at Cisco.

D'oh.

Web 2.0 - social networking, in particular - is changing the way we communicate. Now we can share our inner monologs with the world. For good or ill, each of us can give in to the fantasy that someone actually cares what mood we're in or that we just woke up from a nap. Unfortunately for people like "theconnor" who use the popular social network Twitter, it turns out inner monologues are inner for a reason: Just because we have thoughts rattling around in our brains doesn't mean all information is suitable for mass consumption.

In addition to making the 1970s "Me Decade" seem like the height of altruism, social networking is transforming the Web 2.0 experience into a bizarre, hybridized journal of our personal and professional lives. As corporations and organizations commandeer Twitter and Facebook to suit their own purposes, these oases of personal expression are now fraught with potential for making career-ending gaffes. This peculiar circumstance has spawned intriguing questions. One among many: What happens when your boss wants to be your Facebook friend?

 

The Rise of Facebook

There was a time when Facebook was a little-known Web site exclusive to those with an e-mail address that ended in .edu. It was 2004, John Kerry was running an impotent campaign to unseat an unpopular president, Montreal still had a Major League Baseball team, and SpaceShipOne seemed poised to launch the private spaceflight industry.

In those halcyon days, social networking began and ended with MySpace. Facebook toiled in obscurity and Twitter's concept of expressing oneself in 140 characters or fewer wasn't born. Five years later, the world is a different place. MySpace and its quirky user-created pages have been usurped by Facebook's slick, corporate-friendly format. Consequently some 200 million of us today are feigning interest in what our grade-school classmates are eating for lunch. About a quarter of those same people are coupling with Facebook's rigmarole the ability to share with the planet their most compelling thoughts via Twitter, e.g., "I'm writing an article about Facebook and Twitter."

Snark aside, there is legitimacy as worthwhile communication tools to Facebook and to a lesser extent, Twitter. These applications reconnect old friends, keep new ones in touch and serve as a hub for far-flung siblings.

But a curious trend is emerging: These and other Web 2.0 tools, which were designed to be outlets for personal expression, increasingly are being used by corporate and public-sector entities for marketing and other unintended purposes. Furthermore, people who once adored Facebook as their private online paradise now find themselves in the awkward position of either declining a "friend" request from a workplace superior or willfully exposing to company bigwigs their personal and unflattering photos from years or weekends past.

This convergence of work life and private life seems destined to become the way society functions, said social media observer and World Wide Rave author David Meerman Scott.

"I think what is happening today is our work worlds, social worlds and family worlds are all converging," he said. "They always have been interlinked, but I think social networking interlinks them even

more. It's difficult to keep those separate unless you're prepared to not use social networking."

Scott said he believes social networking has crossed a bridge, leaving the land of novelty and arriving in the realm of everyday tool. That means social networking must be conceived of differently, as should those who use it.

"Yeah, your boss can be on Facebook and ask to be your friend," Scott said. "What do you do, say yes or no? If you say yes, then they found out what you did last night. And I think that's the reality of where this kind of communication is going. I truly believe that a Facebook profile or a Twitter stream or a MySpace page is a very public thing. You can go to a bar and get totally drunk, take off all your clothes and make a fool of yourself. You can do the same thing on Facebook - the virtual equivalent of making a fool of yourself. But just like in that bar, it's entirely possible your boss could have been sitting in the corner, or someone who would tell your boss."

Whether or not a friend request from employer to employee puts the employee in an uncomfortable situation is beside the point. The fact is, social networking is an accepted way to communicate - and a fairly efficient one to boot. So employees should expect such requests. As Scott suggested, a smart approach for those who care about how they represent themselves online is to treat Facebook less like a gossip column and more like Outlook. Although most would agree that whatever joy existed in the Facebook experience is largely stripped away with this strategy.

But the burden of social network etiquette doesn't fall squarely on those receiving friend requests. There's courtesy that must be extended by those issuing the invitation, especially when the invitation is sent from superior to subordinate.

Esther Cepeda, communications officer for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, works at the epicenter of the social networking movement. College students, after all, were responsible for Facebook's ascent from campus curiosity to the fourth most-popular Web site on Earth. Cepeda believes that bosses who have employees as Facebook friends need to set limits for themselves on how they'll use the site.

"I happen to be friends on Facebook with several of my employees, and I personally am very careful to give myself a boundary," she said. "Many times on the weekend I am interested in moseying over to one of my [employee's] Facebook page to see some pictures, and sometimes I do. ... But I don't comment on them. I don't always comment on their statuses because I don't want them feeling like they're being watched. I'm very careful about not being too chummy, commenting on pictures or 'wall' posts, and not making anyone feel like, 'Oh, I'm friends with my boss on Facebook and she's watching over me.'"

 

The Open Generation

Some of the issues that crop up when employers and employees use social networks together are due to the different attitude that older and younger users have about sharing personal information online. Whether an image or video of yourself is appropriate to share depends on whom you ask. Most of the college students Cepeda works with probably have few qualms about putting anything online. Until, that is, they get ready to leave the campus confines.

Cepeda said college students' attitudes range from not caring at all what's online, to realizing maybe some things should stay private for professional or academic reasons. "I think people are waking up to the reality that what you put up there is kind of out there for everybody," she said. "But in general, I think college kids are just really loose with what they have to

show for their life. They are very open. That's the mindset at that age."

This willingness to share any and all details of everyday life is being drilled into students at an early age, argues Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. He contends social networking encourages a vastly inflated sense of self-importance in today's children. Teenagers are being trained to believe that their every thought deserves the world's attention.

"I can't imagine what it would've been like, when I was 15 years old, if I could have had my own Web site, and write down things about myself and [post] pictures of myself online - and other people could look at it and respond to it," Bauerlein said. "I would think, what a temptation - to consider my own needs and desires as something worthy of the world respecting, and everyone taking these things seriously.

"That's the temptation of adolescence. You always want to think you're an important person, you're somebody. Because you're insecure; you're a little narcissistic; you're also fragile. You don't know what kind of person you're going to be. The allure of being able to write down things that happen in your life and other people look at it - I think fits into a form of ego development that, over time, does lead to an expectation about the world being something that should mirror what you're about."

What results are more students entering the workplace who are generally OK with posting intimate details online, Bauerlein said. At the same time, however, CIOs, CEOs and other bosses are venturing onto social networks out of curiosity, or as many interviewees for this story suggested, because someone in marketing told them they should. These factions converge online and a relationship is born that sails deep into uncharted waters.

 

Double Edge

Should a manager who "friends" his employees be ready to look the other way when he discovers objectionable content? Or should employees - or potential employees like "theconnor" - use social networks more conservatively? Have we reached some sort of online impasse, or is there another possibility?

Anand Dubey
is the director of Alaska's Enterprise Technology Services. He's also one of the country's youngest state IT chiefs. He said the first step for those using social networks in the workplace is to understand why they're doing it.

It's a tool like anything else, Dubey said, and you must ask yourself what you're going to do with the tool. It's like enterprise resource planning (ERP), he added. "People would rather buy an ERP and they somehow think that ERP is going to fix all their issues. Well, that's never the case. The thing is, you need to be very clear-cut about your processes on a manual level. Once you've optimized those, then pretty much any tool can fit your need - and that's where this Facebook stuff comes in," Dubey said. "People are doing it, but they don't really know why. It's the cool thing people have picked up, but now what?"

Despite the indoctrination of sharing that Bauerlein said exists, Dubey said he believes most people are intelligent enough to know what is and isn't acceptable to put online. And if they don't know, eventually they'll get the hint.

"In the old days, if you did something stupid like get a tattoo, it looked really cool and if you were working at Wendy's, nobody cared and maybe you got a few dates. But the moment you try to get a professional job and you're all tattooed, regardless of what employers say, you know you're not going to get

a fair shake," Dubey said. "As these kids start climbing up the chain, their actions are going to catch up with them. There are going to be consequences and people are going to slowly start self-regulating. It's all going to stabilize."

Don Patterson, assistant professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, said in order for employers to use social networking smartly, superiors should try channeling younger people's mastery of social networking tools into something that benefits the agency or company.

One possibility is to enlist young workers to be the organization's public spokespeople, Patterson said. "In a lot of cases, they really understand marketing and branding, and they do it naturally for themselves." Enlisting employees who are good at social networking to represent the organization may be beneficial, said Patterson. "Maybe viewing these things as skills rather than liabilities is helpful."

Successfully managing the convergence of personal and public life on the Web is going to be an ongoing challenge. Those who use social networks would be well served to be more thoughtful about how they use these sites and what they reveal about individuals. And, perhaps paradoxically, it might behoove society to relax standards about what is acceptable.

But if the Information Age has taught anything, it's that by the time the world is on the same page, everyone will be reading the next chapter.

 

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.