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Friending Your Employees

Facebook login screen on a smartphone display

You can expect to receive a few things on the first day at a new job. Payroll forms. An employee handbook. Welcoming words from your new co-workers.

What about a Facebook friend request from your boss?

In a recent column for The Wall Street Journal, David Kalt explained that he friends each new hire on Facebook as a matter of course. Kalt, the founder and CEO of Reverb.com, suggests other bosses do the same, suggesting that it helps humanize the employer-employee relationship and enables bosses to better understand the people who work for them.

I’m not convinced.

I don’t mean to single out, or even to criticize Kalt. He has his business to run, and I have mine. If his approach works for him, then he should stick to it. And he is hardly alone; a quick online search uncovers many people who feel similarly (and plenty who oppose the idea, too).

But I have a different take than Kalt on the relationship between a boss and his or her employees, especially where Facebook is concerned.

I am a big fan of Facebook and use it regularly to keep in touch with friends and family. But I never send a friend request to an employee, on the first day or any day thereafter. I don’t see how anything good can come of it. If the employee accepts such a friend request, is it because she wants to share her personal life with me, or is it just because everyone tries not to say no to the boss? Such a request exemplifies and exploits the power imbalance that is inherent in any workplace.

If the situation is reversed and an employee tries to connect with me on social media, I will gladly accept. But I have communicated that I really do not expect this, and it hardly ever happens. This underscores how unfair it would be for me to make my employees an offer of online friendship that they would feel they could not refuse.

Like many employers these days, I expect the people in my firm to bring a lot to the business. Everyone here gives work their best for a full eight hours every weekday and, often, considerably more. When they go home, our employees stay connected and keep informed so they can respond to emergencies. I appreciate everything they give to the business, and I think it is important to respect whatever boundaries they establish beyond it. I try to leave them their personal space, online and off.

This awareness of boundaries is not something I only apply to Facebook. When I go out with a group of employees, I usually pick up the tab. Even in a social setting, being with the boss means being on the job to some degree. And when our employees – who are, on average, much younger than me – arrange social events among themselves, I generally stay away even though they are often nice enough to invite me along. This is partly because I am the age of many of their parents, but mostly because I think they are entitled to their chance to relax.

Of course, I am not advocating a total separation between work and life outside the office. There are certain occasions that warrant the mixing of business and personal life, especially for a close-knit staff like ours. Over the life of Palisades Hudson, I have attended a dozen weddings of staff members. Everyone knows that I will make an effort to attend every such celebration, wherever it happens, to which I am invited. But equally, our staff knows that there is no expectation that I will be invited, and that I consider it a privilege, rather than an obligation, to participate. Similarly, I am glad to celebrate every engagement, confirmation, bar or bat mitzvah, christening and new baby arrival with our staff. I am equally prepared to sympathize and offer whatever support I can when someone suffers a death in the family or faces another hardship.

These moments are the shared experiences that bond us as human beings and build us as a team whose purpose is to accomplish a mission. That mission is to serve our clients as best we can – and also to build a firm that will provide successful and satisfying careers to support the rich personal lives our employees deserve.

Sharing such major life milestones does not mean, however, that I need to inject myself deeply into my employees’ day-to-day personal lives. Over time, I get to know them naturally as our relationships evolve. Some of the new college graduates I hired years ago are now getting into middle age themselves. We have more in common these days. Co-workers get to know one another better, too, as time passes and people mature together. The empathy that Kalt described in his column is a natural side effect of such organic connections.

Genuine friendships really have developed in our firm, including some between me and my colleagues. I like to think that these friendships developed out of mutual inclination and respect – not because the boss injected himself into somebody’s personal life uninvited.

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