Facebook's been around for almost five years -- a lifetime in the Internet world -- and by now it has become a mainstay of workers who want to kill a little (or a lot) of time updating their statuses and playing Scrabble.
Hidden deep beneath the site's fun, technological distractions, some people are actually using the site for its intended purpose: networking (social and professional). You know, touching base and building relationships with people -- all things that used to be done in person with awkward phone calls and cocktail-party pleasantries.
At workplaces, online networking has become an effective way for co-workers within the same building or on different continents to connect. Bosses and employees are also "friending" each other, which can make balancing personality and professionalism difficult. There are obvious drawbacks to letting the boss see too much of your nonwork self, but do the positives compensate?
Friend request accepted
Before you decide if you should be your superior's Facebook friend, you have to ask yourself why you would want to be online buddies. Is everyone else in your department connected online or are you going to be the only employee SuperPoking the boss?
"If you work for a forward-thinking company whose entire staff is on Facebook, then your participation is the online equivalent of lunching with co-workers or a water cooler chat," says Patrice-Anne Rutledge, a social networking expert and author of "The Truth About Profiting from Social Networking."
"The advantage to connecting with a current or former boss on Facebook is the opportunity for more personalized networking. When you connect online, you get to know someone better," Rutledge says. "You could discover a common interest in marathon running, foreign films or yoga, for example, that could help your boss get to know you better as a person. These personal connections can become a major asset when you're looking to move forward in your career or find a new job."
Of course, networking with colleagues is different than "friending" the boss.
Do you or don't you?
Naturally, you don't necessarily want to be your boss's virtual pal if you have something to hide. The obvious drawback to online friendship is that your profile is open to your list of friends, and that means the good and the bad of your online persona are fair game.
"If you use Facebook to air political rants, document your wild weekend escapades, post wacky photos or vent about your job, you should obviously have some concerns about letting your boss view this aspect of your life," Rutledge cautions. "But what's important to remember is that no online content is truly private, even if your intention is to share this information only with your Facebook friends. Facebook makes your profile viewable to anyone in the networks you belong to, even if you're not directly connected with or even know all the network members," Rutledge says.
You should be monitoring your online content as though your current and future bosses can see it, even if they aren't on your buddy list.
"Unprofessional online content, or 'digital dirt' as it's often called, is a problem that goes beyond Facebook. Anything you post online is essentially public and can affect your career and job prospects, both positively and negatively."
The rules of engagement
Like the beginning of any relationship, online networking requires that someone make the first move. As you might expect, you need to be the judge based on your experience at the company.
"In some cutting-edge companies, entire work groups -- from VPs to interns -- are on Facebook and interact regularly. In other circumstances, the proper etiquette would be to wait for an invitation or bring up the subject during a private discussion to see if your boss is open to the idea," Rutledge says. You don't want to put your boss in an awkward position or come across as presumptuous.
"In other companies, younger workers may be hard-pressed to find any members of senior management on Facebook," she explains. "The bottom line is that you really need to understand the 'unwritten rules' in your corporate culture to determine the appropriate way to initiate a Facebook connection."
But if you have some unsavory online content attached to your profile, what do you do if your boss made the first move?
"Declining this invitation obviously isn't a very smart idea, but you can remove your digital dirt before accepting the connection." Rutledge suggests that, if your profile is viewable to the entire company or city network, the boss may have already seen it, so a speedy clean-up is in your best interest.
For the sake of your professionalism, here are some important factors to keep in mind when logging into Facebook or similar sites:
- Networks. The default setting on many sites allows your profile to be viewable to people in your networks, which can be defined by broad categories like your city or alma mater. You have to actively restrict who can see your information. In your settings options, you can opt to be someone's friend but not let her see your pictures or what comments people leave on your Wall. This way you can still be yourself and maintain a good professional relationship with your boss.
- Audience. If your profile can be seen by people who aren't friends, keep in mind that your views aren't necessarily shared by everyone. So your current boss might agree with your diatribe against a Supreme Court ruling, but a future employer might not.
- The Wall. The Wall, which is the place where friends can post comments or videos to your profile, is viewable to all of your friends and networks (unless you restrict access to it). Even if you're on your best behavior, you should make sure your friends are, too. Otherwise, hilarious but inappropriate accounts of your wilder days can creep into your profile.
Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. He is also Facebook friends with his boss.
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