Should You Friend Coworkers?

May 16th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Our annual survey details the complexities of coworkers and social media.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

I once worked in a job in which the president of the company was an energetic Facebook user, with “friends” numbering in the thousands. The problem was that the employees he had “friended” on Facebook roughly mirrored the population he treated as favorites at work – a situation that ultimately contributed to strife in the office.

An implicit rule in the office was that you didn’t “friend” him; you waited for him to “friend” you. And for some, that golden day never came, which told you precisely what he thought about you. I know – really professional. Interestingly, the employees who connected with each other on Facebook were almost invariably job equals; if they weren’t, it was likely they were friending each other to keep in touch upon their departure from the company. I received a request from a direct report, whose bleary-eyed weekend escapades at bars and schlocky home-improvement projects I didn’t particularly want coloring my opinion of her at work, but I also felt it would be irresponsible and embarrassing to reject her invitation.

Some of the experiences I had in that company are roughly in line with the results of a new survey by Ketchum Global Research Network for Liberty Mutual and the Responsibility Project, which revealed the social media user habits of over a thousand people in January. Of the findings, the one that I found most telling was that 54% of Facebook users believed it is irresponsible to friend request your boss, and 61% thought it was irresponsible to “friend” a direct report – both findings that were in line with last year’s survey. Perhaps predictably, there’s a gender divide here: According to the report, women social media users are more likely than men to avoid social media connections between bosses and direct reports (58% of women and 49% of men thought it was irresponsible for direct reports to “friend” their higher-up). But, in fact, the largest gender gap was in regards to whether it was irresponsible to issue a Facebook friend request with someone who reports to you at work (79% of women thought it was irresponsible vs. 48% of men).

Apparently, I fell into the two in five Facebook users who think it is irresponsible to ignore the friend request of a coworker (though I had no problem “un-friending” on my way out the door).

Perhaps most telling, however, is that where no power gap exists, it seems the interest level is also low. Most Facebook users – 74% – reported that friend-requesting coworkers at your peer level is responsible, but only half of those have made the request.

I leave you with the report’s takeaway on social media at work, which is also true for me: Generally, social media users are more likely to interact with former coworkers than current coworkers on social networks. It’s natural to gravitate toward the people you’d actually be friends with at work, but perhaps more responsible to do your gravitating when you’re free of work responsibilities.

What’s your take? Do office politics complicate friendship, and does Facebook complicate the whole dynamic even more? Can you have real friends at work?