Should You Be Friends With Your Boss in Cyberspace?

Imagine this: you're on Facebook; you have a personal page and a Fan page. Your boss is also on Facebook. Should you be friends? What are the legal implications of doing so? Here are a 5 things to take into consideration before you say "yes":

1: To Friend or Not to Friend? First question to think about is what kind of relationship do you currently have with your employer--is it personal, is it family, are you already friends? What kind of relationship do you want to have with your boss? If your existing relationship is professional, will you be crossing the line from professional to personal if you become friends? Will you be perceived as crossing the line--even if you don't think so? How might that affect your job? Your relationship with co-workers? Would it be acceptable for your employer to see some of the things you upload to your Facebook page? Is being "friends" with your boss worth the risk and potential trouble you might experience?

2: Virtual Footprints. A footprint is defined as a track, a trail, a trace, a mark that was left of something that came before. We leave footprints in the sand, on the floor when we come out of the shower, on the carpet when we come in from outside and don't wipe our feet. We also leave footprints when we browse the Internet or engage in conversations on social media sites. The difference is that Internet footprints or virtual footprints are permanent -- contrary to popular belief. So I ask you, is there anything on your site or in your profile, such as content, videos, photos, slogans, or widgets, which could be perceived as provocative? Offensive? Inappropriate? Unprofessional? Because social media is quick, easy, and fun to use, we sometimes forget about the consequences of our actions, or our language. Think about it, how often have you said something, and then regretted it later? If you're like most of us, it's happened more often than you'd like to admit. But with words, eventually the sting goes away. In Facebook and other social media sites, you leave an indelible "virtual footprint", which is available for everyone to see -- forever! For example, if you behave badly, upload provocative pictures of yourself in a compromising position, or spout defaming words about your boss on your Facebook Fan page, rest assured your employer will see it eventually. Another thing to be aware of is that potential employers also increasingly look to social media sites to learn about possible candidates. Additionally, some courts have held that Tweets and Facebook entries create a "record" that can, in some instances, be placed into evidence and used against you in a court of law.

3: Public vs. Private? Can your boss hold you accountable for your online conduct? Do the rules change if your boss is also your "friend"? Is your Facebook profile a "private" space just for your family and friends where almost anything is allowed, or is it a "public" venue where you must abide by the rules of the road? The answer to these questions will determine whether what you do and/or say is protected under the first amendment to the US Constitution, or if your boss can hold you accountable for your conduct. One federal court in CT held that a blog posted to a social media site, even though defamatory, was off-limits because it was considered a private "on-campus" space. Over the next few years we'll likely see many cases addressing this and other social media issues. Since the law is unclear, it's important to think twice about being friends with your boss online.

4: Legal Ramifications. Not only can your content expose you to liability for an assortment of legal claims, such as defamation (Amanda Bonnen is being sued in Chicago for $50,000), but can your boss (if you have one) be sued too? What other legal issues might surface, e.g., harassment, copyright infringement, or trademark infringement. Because it's so easy to upload content to the Internet, it's important to be careful to make sure what you upload does not infringe any third party rights. So ask yourself before you upload, did you create the content, if not, do you have a license or permission to use it, even if you have a license, does it cover the use you intend? If you incorporate someone's trademark in your post, comment, or content do you have permission to use it? Does your upload imply an endorsement by a celebrity? If so, did you get permission? The underlying issue here is that if you are found liable for infringement, defamation, and the like, as an employee you potentially bind your employer as well, especially if he/she is your friend. These are just a few of the legal issues to be aware of when you become friends with your boss.

5: Does your Company have a policy? Does your company have a policy on blogging, social media sites, email, and personal internet use, employee relationships? If so, do you know what that policy says? For example, if your company has a policy, which prevents fraternization among co-workers, could that include online fraternization as well? Does having a policy even make a difference? More and more courts are sending a message to companies that they should create internet policies, and stand by them! If there is no policy, it's hard for employees to legitimately know what they can and can not do.

Socializing on social media sites is fun, but make sure you are mindful of what you say and do, because your actions can come back to haunt you. Long gone are the days when social networking was seen as just a game or an innocent place to meet friends. Increasingly courts are holding people accountable for what they say and do in social media venues.