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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Social Networking and the workplace, i.e. friendships at work, one year later....

A year ago I posted a blog about Facebook and making friends at work. Here is a follow up a year later....

Technology has affected the relationships our employees form with each other, and this is especially true as it relates to Social Networking.

While social networks have existed since the beginning of man, it is something that has grown by significant proportions with the evolution of technology. It started with computers, then email, then cell phones, then My Space, and in the past few years, it has exploded due in large part to the ability to easily communicate with more people through texting, Twitter, and the most popular social networking site to date; Facebook.

Many people spend as many or more hours with co-workers than they do with their families, and many people spend more hours in a week with co-workers than they spend in a month or more with their trusted friends. Due to this, we have seen friendships in business turning into friendships in people’s personal lives. In recent years, I’ve witnessed this happening more frequently, and with more negative effects than I have seen in prior years, or pre-technology, if you will.

I’ve participated in, managed, or encountered many types of relationships with co-workers I’ve worked alongside, or people I’ve managed, or employed, during my 35+ years of working. In all this time, and through all these relationships, I’d like to think I’ve learned a little bit about the dynamics of employee/employee, employee/employer and even client/vendor relationships.

One of the first rules I was taught, but it took me a few mistakes to understand why it’s a common saying you have all heard is……… “you don’t mix business with pleasure”.

I’ve partied with co-workers and then realized that wasn’t the best idea, especially when something happened when we partied, and now I knew more about that person than I cared to know, or needed to know, and it changed our relationship.

I’ve made decisions regarding employees that were affected by my personal relationship with them, and they’ve almost always ended up being bad decisions.

A person I thought was a good friend turned out to not be such a good friend.

The negativity of a person I got too close to started to cause me to become negative myself, and I like to think of myself as a positive person.

“Don’t they ever have anything good to say” or “Why do they work here if they always complain”?

I’ve gone out with co-workers and later figured out they weren’t someone I’d normally associate with, but when they asked me to go out I felt it would have been rude to say “no”, but then the relationship became uncomfortable at work when up until then my professional relationship at work with that person had been great. I should have just said I had a prior commitment.

Does any of this sound familiar? We’ve all been there.

Technology has given the average worker new challenges through their constant availability with their cell phones, texting, twitter, and through social networking sites like Facebook.

In doing some research, I found an appropriate comment about Facebook on a person’s blog:

“For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there's a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-co-worker who I'd cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, "Am I your friend?" yes or no, this instant, please.”

I think the co-worker example above may seem exaggerated to many people who have co-worker friends on their Facebook page, but from my experience, it’s just another step in the direction of mixing business relationships with personal relationships at a stage that is way too early in a "friendship", and that's where the problems that can result are not worth the risk.

On the client/vendor front, I know companies have witnessed a conflict of interest when an employee of theirs and an employee at the client/vendor are friends with each other, and it can or does affect their business relationship. We see some clients who can not even accept a box of chocolate from a trusted vendor at Christmas, which may be a bit over the top, and we see some who recognize that when the sales rep or owner of the vendor takes the vendor manager or decision maker to the Super Bowl, that may influence their decision to give that company work, and rightfully so, they put the kibosh on those types of activities. For this reason we do not allow our employees to be friends with our clients outside work, even on social network sites. It's a conflict of interest for our company, and likely for the client in most cases.

As technology evolves, I now see a new twist happening through social networking sites. A few years ago, clients and vendors interacted on social network sites, but now that has moved to professional sites like Linked In, where conversations are kept to a professional level. Most vendors want people to use their services because they do a good job, not because they like how they look in their profile photo, or because their people socialize with that client’s employees outside work, and are friends who converse regularly on Facebook or Twitter.

I have a Facebook page, and at first I felt awkward when a person at work “friended me”, asking if I’d join their social network on Facebook. I kind of looked at it like when a seventh grade friend of my son sent me a friend request on my personal Facebook page. I like the kid, and didn’t want to seem rude, but I think it best if my relationship with this kid remains as my son’s father, and not as a friend of mine on my personal Facebook page.

I saw the person at work the following day and told them I appreciated their asking me to be their friend on Facebook, but I preferred to keep my Facebook page separate from work. They said ok, and I think they understood.

When I go back and read the “friend” definition on Webster’s, I realize I have personal friends, business friends, family friends, etc. Sometimes my family or personal friends cross over into people I place in my social network, and I have them on my Facebook page, but when it comes to work, I prefer to keep my work relationships at work, or on Linked In or other work sites that contain some social elements, and to me, those are almost always relationships with “business associates”, otherwise the mix of business and personal becomes to consuming. It’s already become more difficult to separate work and personal with the availability of email on cell phones, etc. and adding Facebook and otehr web sites makes it even more challenging.

In my career, I’ve learned there is a time and a place for business, and the same goes for pleasure. I enjoy working, so I get pleasure at work or while working, but I dont do it by doing non work or non business activities. When I go to work I work, period. When I'm done, I spend time with my friends and family and I dont work, period.

While I think there is a time and a place for mixing business and pleasure, based on my personal experience, I’d try and limit my outside of work relationships with my co-workers to company events that are not work related, i.e. company picnics, holiday parties, etc. As the owner, or as a manager or a person of responsibility over others within a company, it is a different landscape than with a co-worker-to-co-worker relationship. While we realize people will become friendly and over time will develop friendships at work, and those may carry over to outside work, the best advise I can give is to take your time, and really get to know the person and make sure that your relationship with them outside the job is based on their being a “trusted friend”, and to me anyway, it takes a significant amount of time, usually a year or more, before I place a friend in that "trusted friend" category.

For this reason, I personally do not consider it a good idea to mix your friendships at work with your friendships in your personal life until a significant amount of time has gone by. I can give you a hundred examples where things went wrong, and in almost every case, it was when a person rushed into a relationship with another person without really knowing them. They placed the person into a position of trust, and many times they got burned. I’d have to think really hard to come up with examples where a business relationship turned into a personal friendship within a few months of the people knowing each other and it benefited both parties, and the company.

On the other hand, I can think of a small amount of examples where a relationship built over a significant amount of time, mutual respect, and trust, evolved between two co-workers and it carried over from work into their personal lives and both employees, and the company, benefited. It’s rare, but when it happens, it really adds value to his or her jobs, and to the company.

This is a difficult rule to keep. I enjoy working with everyone at my company, and I’m sure I’d enjoy skiing with many of them, or going out for dinner, playing a sport or just going to lunch and chatting, however, if I do that, then in my situation, others may feel as if I am playing favorites. Also, what if we become close friends and I have to discipline the person, or promote someone over the person I have become close with and that move upsets them?

From a co-worker standpoint, you have the same issues. “Why does she go to lunch with him every day?” What if you see someone you become friends with doing something you know is not right, will that influence your decision to say something that would be in the best interests of the company? If a joke goes to far at work and it carries over to Facebook and now the whole world can potentially see the joke, is that a good idea?

Oh, that will never happen, I have my privacy settings so only "my friends" can see what I do on facebook. If you check your privacy settings every day, you're half way there, but Facebook makes changes daily and some of those changes have affected people's privacy settings, or lack of privacy settings, and then its wide open. Googling "Facebook privacy" gets you hundreds of pages about Facebooks privacy issues.

What if a "friend" copies and pastes the post you thought was private, or their privacy is open and people can see it, then its not private any longer is it? It happens, believe me, we see it as that's what we do when we're developing tools to gather info off the web on people using their open source web based info, which in many cases they thought was private. The best rule to follow is that if you post something you think someone would have a problem with, then you better not post it cause once you do, its permanent and it can and many times will come back to bite you.

There are other problems with social interaction in the workplace that have been around for ever, but are magnified with on line social networks. If the time comes for a promotion, will your boss feel as if you have developed too many personal relationships with people you’d be supervising and then you get passed over? Will someone spread rumors about you because they are jealous of your relationships with co-workers, or they misunderstand your intentions, even if they are completely trustworthy and honest? Those are just a few examples of the risks involved with developing relationships that move from business associate to friendship at work. When they happen in a matter of weeks or even months, the risk of a problem is elevated. When they happen as people really get to know each other, and as each person cements their position within the company, the risk becomes reduced.

Another reason I feel the mixing of your personal and work life should be approached with extreme caution is the simple fact that you need to charge your batteries when you’re away from work, and the best way to do that is to leave work at the office and come in fresh the next day. If you spent an hour on the phone at home after work speaking with a current or an ex-coworker and work was discussed, yours or theirs, that’s not usually a healthy phone call for your psyche. Are you talking about good things? “Oh, I love my job” and if it’s an ex-employee you’re speaking with, what do they think of that if they are no longer there? Are you complaining to each other about something that bothers you, and how does that negativity affect you? Or what if you’re happy and your new personal friend from the office isn’t, will they call and tell you how they love their job or will they call to bitch, or worse yet, post it on Facebook?

Here are some interesting questions to ask yourself when making friends at work :

• If your friend left the company, would you still be in touch with her in a year?
• If you had a personal emergency, would you consider asking your friend for help?
• Do you hang out with your friend outside the office? (Weekday lunch, happy hour, and business trips don’t count.)
• Have you met your friend’s significant other? What about her friends outside the office?
• If your friend received the promotion you were banking on, would you be genuinely happy for her?
• If you ran into your friend in the grocery store, would you be able to talk to her for 10 minutes without mentioning work?
• Have you seen where your friend lives?
• Do you and your friend have anything in common besides your age and your job?

Thanks, and I hope my experience and thoughts on this challenging topic help you in your quest to become the best you can be at work!