To ‘Friend’ or Not to ‘Friend’?

Should HR professionals connect with employees on Facebook?

By Aliah D. Wright May 10, 2016
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For HR professionals, “friending” employees on Facebook or connecting on other social media sites is far from a simple decision.

That’s what Chelsea Wheeler discovered after she posed the question “Do any of you accept friend requests on social media from employees?” to the HR Department of One group on SHRM Connect, the Society for Human Resource Management’s online community.

In an interview with SHRM Online, Wheeler, HR director at Cuisine Unlimited in Salt Lake City, said, “I was prompted [to pose the question] by the recent friend requests I was getting from employees at the company I work for. I’ve been building good rapport with many of them, and now they’ve been requesting me on Facebook. My gut told me it was not a good idea to accept their friend requests, but I wanted insight from fellow HR professionals.”

That insight varied.

Some said it was OK to accept friend requests from employees but to “tread lightly.” Others said it’s better to invite those employees to connect on LinkedIn instead because that platform is more professional. Concerns about connecting on Facebook—and retaining those connections after a promotion—ranged from finding out too much information about employees to being accused of favoritism or impropriety.

Most people who commented on Wheeler’s post recommended against accepting a friend request from an employee, and employment attorneys generally agree. That’s because people tend to share very personal details about themselves and others on social media, and what you see may create conflict. For example, one person wrote that an employee who was supposed to be teleworking had posted on Facebook that they were actually partying in Las Vegas.

“Setting expectations for when the bad things happen is key,” blogger Ben Eubanks, SHRM-SCP, said in an interview with SHRM Online. It’s why some people only share certain posts with certain people by using different variations of their friends list (for example, the Friends Except Acquaintances list). The learning analyst with Huntsville, Ala.-based research firm Brandon Hall Group said, things people share on social media "will not always be pleasant. But for some reason as humans we are hardwired to imagine that everything will be fine in perpetuity. It just isn’t logical, and we need to have a frank conversation about what happens if things don't go as planned.”

When the ‘Friend’ Becomes the Boss

Things change, too, if a Facebook friend becomes the boss.

Once you become a supervisor, being a Facebook friend with a subordinate is problematic—"You have the potential to get additional information you otherwise would not have,” said Douglas Towns, a partner in the Labor & Employment Group at Sherman & Howard LLC, based in Atlanta. He said that, as innocuous as it may seem, information people post on Facebook about themselves and even their family members may have implications under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Both federal laws protect people against discrimination. So it’s possible for people to share information on Facebook, for example, about a medical condition, that could lead to their filing discrimination claims later.

When HR professionals ‘friend’ employees, they “may learn things [they] don’t want to learn—not because they are bad, but because someone could attribute an adverse action to the existence of what you learned,” added Jonathan Segal, a partner at Duane Morris LLP in the Employment, Labor, Benefits and Immigration Practice Group in Philadelphia.

For example, “You learned I was pregnant. You learned I had bipolar disorder. You learned I was divorced. You learned I was converting to Catholicism,” he said—all of these situations could lead to discrimination claims later.

What About Protecting Your Posts?

Try using Facebook’s acquaintance list feature to protect sensitive comments so only close friends can see them, suggested Shari Simpson, an HR specialist for GK Development, a Chicago-based real estate developer. In response to Wheeler’s SHRM Connect post, Simpson said she sends colleagues who friend her this message before accepting their request:

“While I'm grateful you'd reach out and that you'd like to include me amongst your Facebook friends, I typically reserve this channel for friends/family and business associates I've known for years. … I'm okay with being connected via Facebook, with the caveat that this is strictly a personal space for me and not always ‘work appropriate’ with the content or language and not where I do any of my professional networking/introductions or lead (job or business) hand-offs. Let me know how you'd like to proceed. Again, okay with connecting anywhere-just want to give fair warning there is a fair amount of profanity and other NSFW [not suitable for work] content I post here in my ‘closed’ network. As long as you’re cool with this, I'll approve the request.”

She told SHRM Online that only one person decided not to be her Facebook friend after reading her message. It surprised her, she said, “because I’m such good friends with this person, but he’s in HR as well. We talked about it offline. He said, ‘I was a little scared about what you’re posting.’ ”

Her feeling is that “this is my personal space. I want people to have a very clear understanding that this is very personal to me and does not represent me in any professional capacity.”

HR professionals need to be aware that if colleagues see their social media posts and find the posts offensive, those feelings can spill over into the workplace and the posts may no longer be private, said Segal.

“Another concern is that an employee could post things that could create a duty on the part of the employer to act,” he added. For example, if an employee engages in illegal activity and shares that on Facebook.

Why Fake Facebook Accounts Don’t Work

Some people have more than one Facebook account—one for friends and family, and one for work and business contacts. But that doesn’t work for a number of reasons.

Even if you use an alias, people still know what you look like and who your friends are. They may even have some of the same friends. Facebook’s algorithm frequently encourages you to grow your friends list based on these connections, and both your “real” and fake Facebook accounts may show up.

“Even if you get a pseudonym and you have a different name and a different photo, it could be possible to identify you,” said Joey Price, CEO of the Maryland-based HR consultancy JumpStartHR. “You can’t fully conceal your activities on Facebook.”

That’s because of Facebook’s Graph Search—the search engine within the platform. It allows users to “search for a person’s name and see what photos they’ve liked and what statuses they’ve commented on, and if those are public or if the comment or picture is public and accessible by search, you can’t hide [your true identity],” Price added.

If HR professionals decide to friend employees on Facebook, they should use good judgment, experts told SHRM Online. “The Internet is forever,” Towns said. “Things get saved and cached and printed and forwarded, so there are a dozen ways for one message to get republished and found—even after it was supposedly deleted.”

As for Wheeler, she ultimately decided “I will not be friending the employees who requested me, and will take the advice of those who responded to my question of communicating why I will be rejecting their friend requests.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM. She is also author of “A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn … and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites (SHRM, 2013).

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