Is It a Bad Idea to Friend Co-workers on Facebook? How About Your Boss?

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It’s nice to have a friendly work environment. But in some cases, work friends shouldn’t be Facebook friends. Why not? A status update published on a Tuesday night can easily turn into office gossip on Wednesday morning. Even worse: co-workers and managers could take you less seriously, you could be skipped over for a promotion and you might find yourself first in line when layoffs occur, all based on your activity on Facebook.

In a new report conducted by my company, Millennial Branding, and Identified.com, we gathered information from 4 million Gen Y Facebook profiles to see how their personal and professional online identities overlap. We discovered that, to some degree, most users limit the details of their professional lives on Facebook. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Gen Y Facebook users don’t list their employer in their profile, some likely out of worries that they could be easily searchable by co-workers — a situation they’d prefer to avoid.

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We also found that the typical Gen Y Facebook user is connected to about 700 friends. But only 16 of those friends, on average, are co-workers.

Even so, are young workers today connected to too many colleagues and prone to sharing so much that it could hurt their careers? Through Facebook, one’s personality, self-image and interests are exposed, and these details can affect how we’re perceived by co-workers and managers.

There’s even reason to be careful about friending people you don’t work with. The data shows that young people are job hoppers. They spend just over two years at their first corporate job before moving on. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American will have about nine jobs between the ages of 18 and 32. All this job hopping increases the likelihood that a Facebook friend will someday be a colleague at work — perhaps even an in-office rival or the person who decides whether you get a promotion.

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Placing friends in certain groups on Facebook is difficult because the status of your connections evolves over time. The smartest approach is to assume that what you’re sharing will eventually be seen by people you work with and to be mindful that your Facebook timeline could give an employer a reason to decide against hiring, promoting or recommending you.

Here is more advice for using Facebook in the least-risky fashion possible:

Don’t friend co-workers you don’t trust. Gen Y is known as a competitive group in the workplace, and especially in the shaky state of the job market, every employee is looking for an edge. So be careful — paranoid, even — about which co-workers you’re friends with online lest a “friend” sabotages your career.

Avoid friending your direct manager. Your boss has a big influence on your career trajectory. He or she helps decide who gets a raise and who doesn’t, and who takes on what projects. Basically, your manager can make your work life wonderful or miserable, and to avoid the latter, it’s safer to keep Facebook out of the equation.

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Set your privacy settings and review them regularly. On Facebook’s privacy-settings page, make sure to check the option that allows you to approve all tags, pictures, videos and mentions of your name. This way, you’ll have recourse when a friend shares something that you don’t want your followers to see.

Be smart about what you post. The main picture used in your profile is the first impression people will get of you, so choose wisely. It’s also, obviously, a bad idea to complain about your boss or co-workers or to say anything negative about your employer in Facebook posts. Griping online may feel therapeutic, but it can also hurt your career. With a smart phone, Facebook users can post from anywhere in the world, and they do so instantly and impulsively — greatly increasing the chance that they’ll share something they later wish remained private. What happens in Vegas, or anywhere else, will be forever exposed to the world on Facebook if you let it.

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Build your network intelligently. The people you associate with have an impact on how successful you are. If you align yourself with the wrong people and they post hurtful, racist, outlandish or immature comments on your wall, it makes you look as bad as they do. Think twice before adding friends who could tarnish the reputation you’ve worked so hard to build.

Schawbel is the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a full-service personal-branding agency. He speaks on the topic of personal branding, social media and Gen Y workforce management for companies such as Google, Time Warner, Symantec, CitiGroup and IBM. Subscribe to his updates at Facebook.com/DanSchawbel.

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