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We spend over 2,000 hours a year in close proximity with our colleagues, which means we may see our colleagues more than we see our own family. But the boundaries of when and how we should acknowledge our colleagues in social media spaces can get blurred.
And no wonder: Although it may not seem novel now, employees communicating through instant messages, GIFs, heart emojis and a pointedly brief “k” is still a very young phenomenon. Facebook just turned 15 years old, and the first tweet ever posted was in 2006. Instagram direct messages did not exist as recently as seven years ago, and Slack just debuted in 2013.
With each advance in social media technology, we get new ways to find and connect with each other. But should we be so connected with people we work with?
Those in previous generations may have wondered about how to interact with that weird guy from sales when spotting him at the grocery store, for example. Now, we can follow his Facebook account or be matched with him on a dating app.
For professors, workplace contacts include students. Joseph Osmundson, a writer, clinical assistant professor of biology at New York University and one of the hosts of the “Food 4 Thot” podcast, said his students sometimes find him on the dating app Grindr. “Because it uses location, students see me on it all the time, and message a lot. And I’m like: BLOCKED,” he said.
Osmundson said his students also bring up his podcast in his class, leading to a tough but necessary conversation about boundaries: “They’re free to listen to my podcast, but it’s not appropriate to bring it up in class or in meetings.”
Clearly, we do not have a shared understanding of what social media etiquette among colleagues or workplace acquaintances should be. When HuffPost asked readers about their personal policies, the only rule in common was that there was no one rule. How colleagues interacted depended on their industry, the type of nosy colleagues they had, their motivations, and where they fall on the corporate ladder.
Here are some principles to keep in mind as you draw your own boundaries:
Remember, Big Brother is always watching
Social media users often choose to display a curated look at their lives ― a view in which the sun is always shining and the LOLs never stop. One risk of sharing is forgetting that your online persona is being judged. And when that audience includes managers with disciplinary authority, even seemingly common interactions can lead to negative repercussions.
That’s what happened to Holly, a worker in the U.K. who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy. When Holly was at the hospital for 10 days, she went on Instagram and Twitter to kill time.
“A stint in hospital often gives you a lot of spare time,” she said. “I liked stuff, I retweeted and even posted a Boomerang of my oh-so-attractive, deep vein thrombosis socks whilst I was laid up in bed.”
Scrolling and sharing posts was her emotional release from boredom, but her colleagues saw a different story.
“On arriving back to work, I was horrified that someone had been [saying] that I obviously wasn’t that ill if I was posting on social media,” she said, noting that person had viewed her Instagram through a mutual friend. “This then led to being called in for a chat with a manager, clearly trying [to] ascertain how ill I was.”
For Holly’s colleagues, her retweets, likes and shares became signals of what values she held and what kind of person she was, even if that characterization was untrue. Holly has this warning for employees: “Big Brother is always watching!”
It’s fine to not engage
Some people forgo the headache of negotiating limits on social media and choose not to engage with co-workers at all.
“I work very closely with school administrators and I believe seeing someone posting about a trip when I know they have called in sick would put me in an uncomfortable position,” said Eileen, who works in a middle school and asked to use just her first name to protect her privacy. She took herself off Facebook to avoid colleagues.
The medium is the message
Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase explains how a medium influences how a message is received. Each social network comes with built-in expectations.
LinkedIn is known to be a professional space for job seekers and aspiring thought leaders, so getting a “like” there may not hold the same meaning as getting one on your Instagram selfie. One manager said LinkedIn is the only social media platform on which she talks to colleagues to discuss professional interests.
What you posted previously in a given space can also indicate how you choose to interact with colleagues on it.
Madeline, who works in advertising and wished to be identified only by her first name to protect her privacy, said she “only follows [co-workers] on Instagram because Facebook is home to too many embarrassing photos from high school. Otherwise, I keep contact [limited] to adding [colleagues] on LinkedIn, and find it weird if I receive anything other than a like.”
Reaching a comfort level with nosy colleagues may include using features that restrict what they can see, even if it leads to more speculation. Holly said that before she deleted her Facebook, she limited access: “I restricted all colleagues’ views of my Facebook feed. They could see what I wanted to post, but not what others posted on my feed. Sure, a few grumbled, a few asked if I was hiding a relationship breakdown!”
There is also comfort in staying a little more anonymous. Holly takes a more relaxed approach on Twitter and Instagram, where she doesn’t display her real name.
Of course, if your actual job is in social media, all bets are off. As Kelly Ann Collins, the CEO at the Vult Lab social media agency put it, “Want to stay relevant and connected? Get used to having 10 inboxes. DMs are the new email.”
Managers can’t unsee what you post
For bosses, it gets trickier. Once gained, certain knowledge cannot be forgotten. And sometimes it is sought out. One manager admitted to HuffPost that she used social media to monitor her employees when she had questions about their attendance.
Jen Briggs, who worked as a human resources executive for New Belgium Brewing for 12 years, said she followed back if colleagues invited her, but noted it could leave her knowing too much: “I want to be objective in my work, but sometimes you can’t unsee some things.”
Briggs said she once unfollowed a colleague on Facebook after he shared an anti-Latino post tied to President Donald Trump’s campaign.
“When you re-post, it’s virtually impossible to explain the nuances of the lines of agreement and disagreement. It’s hard to unsee and I just didn’t want to see more,” she said.
People may be sharing a lot for very good reasons
Despite the risks inherent in sharing and following colleagues, many people continue to seek the connections. Social media can create bonds that last long after a job ends. Try to reserve judgment on why people choose to share their lives. What one person considers oversharing can be a lifeline for others.
“The few negative incidents were anomalies,” Briggs said. “The thousands of connectable moments are the norm. I love watching their children grow, the fun vacations, the exceptional food and beer, career progress and grand adventures.”
Even tough moments can be positive and educational when shared.
On his public Twitter, Osmundson is frank about therapy, heartbreak and sexual desire. Although he worries all the time that his online personality could jeopardize his employment, he said that modeling this openness for others who may be watching is worth it.
“I want to make queer sexuality so open, so shameless, that it dissipates the shame of others. Also, as a scientist, I want young queer people to understand that one, you can be overtly queer and a scientist and two, that they can come to me with questions about sexuality, bodies and health,” he said, adding, “I literally think it’s worth risking my employment in order to be publicly queer, publicly sexual and sexy, and publicly a biomedical scientist. ... I wish someone had shown me that you can live in all these things at once when I was a gayby, and I try to share the complexity and difficulty and loneliness of adult queer life as honestly as I can.”
Feeling a part of online communities can make the hassles of having colleagues in those spaces worthwhile. As you look at pending friends or follows, you must ask yourself: How much of your hand do you want to show this person?