Kerry Gorgone

Social Media Privacy: Should Bosses Be Allowed to Friend Employees?

By: Kerry Gorgone | July 28, 2014 | 

Social Media Privacy: Should Bosses Be Allowed to Friend Employees?By Kerry Gorgone

Social networking added an entirely new morass for employers to navigate.

Should you permit employees to friend one another? (You don’t really have a choice.)

Can you prevent it if they elect to? (Unlikely.)

Can social media policies limit what they say about their workplace on social media sites like Facebook? (Not without potentially infringing employees’ right to discuss working conditions.)

Can you use their social media activity as the basis for firing an employee? (Probably not a good idea.)

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Employer/employee friendships, in particular, have long been fraught with potential legal issues.

Something as simple as a supervisor asking his or her direct report to have lunch might cause the employee to feel harassed or coerced, depending on the circumstances.

After some employers attempted to demand passwords for accessing employees’ social media accounts, a number of states passed laws affirmatively banning the practice.

But what about requesting employees to connect with their supervisors on sites such as Facebook?

At first blush, this isn’t as egregious as requesting an employee’s password outright, and some would argue that employees can, with minimal effort, limit what their supervisor sees of their posts and personal information.

The Facebook privacy settings, however, have proven difficult to master, even for the most tech savvy among us. An average user of the site would almost certainly miss something, leaving potentially sensitive posts visible to their supervisor.

Even if they got the settings exactly right, Facebook is notorious for changing them frequently and defaulting settings to wider access than many people would like.

Some people prefer not to connect with supervisors on social media at all.

This begs the question: What happens if their supervisors initiate a request to connect? Can employees refuse? Might they face negative repercussions if they do?

Legal Implications of Social Media Privacy

There’s a case pending in Arkansas contesting a state law that says an employer should not request an employee or possible employee to add a supervisor to their list of contacts on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram (even MySpace).

In passing the law, Arkansas became one of a growing number of states with social media privacy laws in place that affect employers.

As of May 2014, 28 states had introduced similar legislation.

Facebook has expressed concerns that the Arkansas law will curtail voluntary social media connections between employees and supervisors or administrators.

But how can we know which connections are truly voluntary?

If your supervisor asks, “But you WANTED to connect with me on Facebook, didn’t you?” what’s the average employee going to say?

Is there any way to guarantee that a supervisor whose “voluntary” friend request is denied won’t retaliate in some way?

Laws Should Be Designed for Protection of Both Parties

Legislators might perhaps revise the law to protect employees who refuse to connect the way that other laws protect “whistle blowers” from adverse consequences for disclosing dangerous or illegal activity in the workplace.

Unless the law can protect employees from unwanted requests for friendship (whether online or off), the law would need to stay as is.

Otherwise, employees might be coerced into accepting supervisors’ friend requests, even if they don’t want to, for fear of reprisals.

The desire to maintain separation from supervisors might seem quaint to younger employees, or people working at small start-ups.

However, the risks are real: Supervisors are people with biases and preferences.

While they may not consciously discriminate against employees for their online associations or posts, there’s still a risk that knowing too much about their employees social life could affect the way they interact with them at the office.

In some instances, supervisors might have good intentions in using information obtained on Facebook to make decisions about assignments and workloads. Perhaps your boss sees that you have a sick child, so offers an important client project to one of your coworkers.

You might never know the reason the assignment went to someone else, but it could well have ramifications for your future career.

I’m a fan of social media privacy laws: Trusting employers not to demand access to employees’ social accounts or require connections on social media is naïve at best, and harmful at worst.

How do you handle friend requests from superiors at work?

About Kerry Gorgone

Kerry O'Shea Gorgone is instructional design manager, enterprise training, at MarketingProfs. She is also a speaker, writer, attorney, and educator. She hosts and produces the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast.

  • This topic is so interesting!
    I think the only place I’ve ever had supervisors friend request me (vs. the other way around) is on LinkedIn, which to me falls into a totally different category from Facebook. There would certainly need to be some widespread education about laws like these, because I can’t imagine most people would think twice about sending a LinkedIn request to a new hire (would they?) …

  • Eleanor Pierce Hmm…see I’ve been friends with pretty much every supervisor I’ve ever had (since Facebook was a thing). But the nature of my work has always been a bit different I suppose, and in many cases I was friends with them prior to working for them, so the dynamic is always a bit different. I also think I’m pretty much unapologetically myself from the get go, so it’s not like a supervisor would find something surprising on Facebook.

    It’s a really interesting topic though. Social media again changes the rules when it comes to this stuff.

  • This is definitely a slippery slope. I’m friends with employees and clients, but I never really share anything polarizing or with foul language, etc. I have seen some employees go off of the deep end with their views or use of language, but I acknowledge that their Facebook profile is a personal space. If I can’t handle their views, then I can hide or unfriend them. I CANNOT use what I see to impact our business relationship.

    I’ve always looked at it as a risk for the employee. I never thought about the repercussions for the employer. Interesting…

  • Such an important topic to address. I know this is “old school” but back when I was a supervisor (and before I had a smart phone), I would be shocked if I were, for example, home with a sick child and would see one of my employees share something on Facebook on work time. That seems so long ago; I know my personal allowances for that got much looser over the past few years. // That said, I know that a fellow employee at my previous employer was terminated *partially* because of a judgement a supervisor made based on FB (the person was home on sick leave but posted that she was making progress on her personal side business) (there were other issues but still …. even if she was “sick,” did that prohibit her from doing some of her side work?) // in a perfect world everyone could be friends with everyone else (if they so chose) but ultimately at my employer I started off friending LOTS of coworkers and ended up segregating myself from all but one who had been a friend before we became coworkers. Incidents such as the one I described above, among others, led me to believe that there was nothing good or enhancing of our work relationships that could come out of being FB friends. // Lastly, I am a social media FAN (obviously) and very open about who I friend/connect/follow etc. BUT I view Facebook as, at times, the equivalent of a diary (albeit a public one) — there’s something to be said for boundaries — for my coworker not knowing how I spent the weekend (before I have had an opportunity to choose to tell them about it voluntarily) or what I had for breakfast or how my kid’s report card was. Great questions raised here.

  • Gini fires me every day on Facebook. Surely that can’t be legal!!?? 😉

  • belllindsay You’re in Canada. I can do whatever I want.

  • You know, this is something I think about often. We are a communications firm and everyone on my team are people I met through social media. So, of course, we’re all friends on the social networks. But, let’s say as we continue to grow, I don’t friend, follow, or circle new hires. What happens when they comment on someone’s page where I am friends? It’s definitely a slippery slope and not one I’m sure we have answers for yet.

  • ginidietrich belllindsay Sometimes, this blog feels like a Ziggy cartoon.

  • JoeCardillo belllindsay Just sometimes?

  • ginidietrich JoeCardillo belllindsay Ok like 87% of the time..

  • dbvickery Personally, I try to look at it positively – if something I say on a (let’s be honest, loosely) guarded social network like Facebook can’t be heard and justified publicly, I probably shouldn’t be saying it. Having said that, I agree w/your last point because people largely see FB as a personal (even if it’s not private) space.

  • I found it very interesting that companies ever asked for passwords. I would tell any boss to f-off and fire me me. I would make it public that the event occurred and if they let me go I was immediately suing for wrongful termination. 

    A teacher was fired for posting a photo of her with a beer on her trip…to Ireland. I think it was upheld in court. Makes me wish the 99% had risen up and just taken the heads of the 1% for the way they get treated. 

    This is kind of funny because I know the smart people like ginidietrich give talks to CEO’s explaining they never had control over what people say about their business offline so to think you have control online is a pipe dream.

    I like all your recommendations Kerry! And btw the fact is Facebook does not know the real us. It is why influence ratings for people is a crock and a fraud. We censor ourselves online and we share so little.I have been blogging about this a long time. We share maybe 0.05% of our life on social networks. And we can easily set up second accounts to be private with if the laws allowed employers to ask for passwords. I think the best rule of thumb is only post things you would be ok with strangers in the mall seeing about you and save the real stuff for email, text, phone, in person.

  • JoeCardillo ginidietrich belllindsay you do know that Gini’s favorite movie is Ziggy takes Manhattan

  • JoeCardillo dbvickery I’m definitely in favor of more folks taking the “probably shouldn’t be saying it” approach! 😉

  • dbvickery before social media I worked for a company that when I got promoted to outside sales was told I had to stop having lunch with my inside sales/key accounts friends every day. The reason was they felt that team should be able to talk freely about the sales group if needed without management there. I never hung out with co-workers at night. They didn’t need to know I was out dancing from 11pm- 10am Sat-Sun with a bunch of tattooed, pierced, beautiful artsy people in a secret party in the desert. They needed to think I drank tea and played pictionary while watching greys anatomy reruns on Saturday nights.

  • dbvickery btw just so you know. I never went out dancing ever. I deny everything.

  • Howie Goldfarb JoeCardillo ginidietrich Canadians have rights you know!!!!

  • JoshuaJLight


    What a fascinating subject to discuss.  From the perspective of an employer…I always send friend requests to my employees.  I don’t do it to stalk them…I do it because I’m genuinely interested in connecting.  

    Even if states stop companies from doing this…there are a ton of software companies that offer wide spread surveillance.  One of my clients was using Heresay Social.  With it they were able to monitor social media, and email conversations across their entire organization.  It was really creepy.  Keywords would get flagged.  Once a piece of content was flagged it appeared in the social media manager’s inbox.  They were then able to read the content in it’s entirety, and also had access to more content if they needed to investigate further.

  • JoshuaJLight whoa – definitely creepy (the Heresay…)

  • Facebook is the main one of concern to me. I have a Facebook only for family that is closed off. I have my Facebook account for everyone I’ve met and know in the marketing world. I have another Facebook that is solely for work. I know it sounds crazy, but it keeps me sane. I don’t like mixing my family & business together. As far as Twitter, I have @jason_ which is my secondary account, but looks like my primary account to the public and business world. I created my original Twitter account March 2008 with no name ( thinks stealth mode), so it’s the account where I can comment on whatever and nobody knows it is me. 🙂

  • KerryGorgone

    Definitely an approach that minimizes issues with your employer, Jason, although there’s always the chance a supervisor might find and request you on the “wrong” account.

  • KerryGorgone

    Many employees are surprised to learn that even emails on their personal accounts aren’t private if sent through their employer’s server. This type of surveillance can be highly intrusive, although it’s not usually illegal in the workplace. Do you know if the software can access nonpublic social media posts? Would be interesting, and most likely would impact the legality of that surveillance should a terminated employee sue.

  • KerryGorgone

    Thanks, Howie. It’s certainly true that many people polish up their online presence so their connections see a carefully planned, slightly shinier version of their life. One reason for this is that they follow your own suggestion, and “only post things you would be ok with strangers in the mall seeing about you.”
    That doesn’t leave much room for posts about your challenges and vulnerabilities. Of course some people prefer to have others see them as more important, richer, or better looking, with photos filtered so no wrinkles or blemishes show. But sooner or later, they probably meet their connections in person, so it’s not as though those cherished illusions impact reality much.

  • KerryGorgone

    Very true, Gini. And it’s a smaller world than ever, so the likelihood that you’d see employees’ comments on a social post even without connecting directly is very high. Social media is still the Wild West for employers and employees to some extent.

  • KerryGorgone

    Great points, although we’re all human. Once you’ve seen an employee’s post, you can’t unsee it. Even if it only subconsciously changes the way you interact with them, it could impact their work environment.

  • KerryGorgone

    Thanks for your comment! There’s still the potential for problems, even if you were connected prior to working for someone. Many times, taking a job working for a friend changes the nature if the relationship a bit. For instance, if they saw a post about your health problems or risky behavior, they’d inevitably think about how it might impact their business.
    If it’s worked for you, that’s great. It might even help you to find the right work situation. In general, though, I’d exercise caution when connecting.

  • KerryGorgone

    I agree, LinkedIn is very different from other networks. There have nonetheless been some instances of inappropriate messages or other behavior impacting work relationships, so I think it has to be included to some extent in any policy or regulatory framework.

  • KerryGorgone It actually did help me find the perfect work situation (at least that’s what I keep telling ginidietrich every day). There are so many issues at play here, which is what makes this such an interesting topic. 

    A couple of thoughts though:
    -Workers increasingly want a more “casual” work environment, where there is a more open organizational structure, more casual and friendly interaction, etc. But on the other side of the coin they don’t want that to cross over whatever lines they decide to draw. You can’t have it both ways. With every benefit comes drawbacks and it is important to understand which dynamic is most important to you when choosing a place to work

    -There seems to be this sense that social can (and thus, should) be separate from your professional life. It flat out can’t. You cannot totally separate what you do and post separately from your career and how it reflects on you as a professional and the organization you work for. We live and work in a social business dynamic and while you can try to segregate things to a certain extent, you can’t totally compartmentalize. This is very important to understand and while privacy is important, an organization also needs to protect the image that it reflects to the world. Your employees are one of the largest, most powerful reflections of your brand you have. They are your front line brand ambassadors. 

    It’s a really tough line. That’s why this is such a great post because it’s really important to have these discussions.

  • Howie Goldfarb dbvickery But there is that tattoo…

  • KerryGorgone True, but I’ve also built the relationship enough in person to understand a lot of those polarizing views…BEFORE the Facebook friendship. That’s probably why they friended me, rarely friended another one of my partners, and NEVER friended the third.

  • JoshuaJLight

    KerryGorgone it’s not possible to access non-public posts.  The social networks prevent you from pulling that data.

  • KerryGorgone I don’t use my whole name in the url for that very reason. 🙂 I try to stay a step ahead. I’ve managed enough Facebook profiles, so I know how to approach it.

  • Hey ginidietrich can I have a turn at firing belllindsay?!?

  • Pauleen

    Hi, Kerry! This is indeed an interesting post! 🙂

    Well, there will always be a two-sided part on every argument. Knowing the pros and cons of both sides really helps a lot. It is good to know all the points, so that you can identify the best solution for the problem given.

    Anyway, I understand the thoughts delivered above.

    As for me, there’s nothing wrong if bosses will be allowed to friends with their employers in social media. It’s a part of communication after all. However, I hope both parties should know and have their limitations.

    Thanks for the post! 🙂

    I’ve found this post shared on*

  • @jason_ ginidietrich NO!

  • Pingback: » Out of my Facebook()

  • belllindsay @jason_ Absolutely, Jason! You can try it tomorrow. Today is a Canadian holiday.

  • KerryGorgone

    It’s definitely a blend, at best, Laura! Important point. To be sure, attitudes about social relationships with superiors and co-workers are evolving, particularly as we see the younger generations entering the workforce. As we saw in previous generations, however, relationships between co-workers can complicate office situations, and I doubt it will work much better online than it has offline. And online conversations are captured for posterity: they continue to exist “somewhere” long after the parties hit “delete.” We’ll have to see how things develop!  LauraPetrolino KerryGorgone ginidietrich

  • I may be naïve, but supervisors should be the ones setting
    the example to staff and modeling appropriate behaviours and etiquettes.  I know this isn’t always reality, but instead
    of setting rules to ensure appropriate behaviour, should supervisors not be
    held accountable to their actions instead? 
    What is the difference between asking an employee out for drinks after
    work and sending them a friend request on Facebook?  You will likely find out more about an
    employee over drinks, and possibly more negative things, than you will by
    creeping their Facebook account.  A
    supervisor should base their opinion of an employee by their quality of work,
    and their personal life is interfering with that, then that’s when you start to
    ask questions.  If a supervisor cannot be
    ethical, then they should not be sending out request into an employees’
    personal life.  It does happen where
    supervisors become friends with employees, and this shouldn’t necessarily be
    discouraged either – again as long as favouritism and biases to not overshadow
    the work dynamic.  If a supervisor cannot
    be moral and ethical, then maybe it should be questioned whether or not they
    should be a supervisor, instead of putting in absolute laws and policies that
    can cause even more issues.

  • Pingback: 21 Must Haves in Your Social Media Policy Spin Sucks()