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Ask The Experts: Should I Accept My Coworker’s Facebook Friend Request?

Navigating social media etiquette with coworkers can feel like high school all over again. Here’s how to deal.

Ask The Experts: Should I Accept My Coworker’s Facebook Friend Request?
[Photo: Flickr user Bhupinder Nayyar]

Sure, you like your coworkers, but do you really want them to see all of your party pictures? It can be tricky letting your work friends know that you want to keep a division between your work life and your social media identity.

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After all, Just how long can you pretend you didn’t see their friend request?

Hi,

I would say I have a pretty average working relationship with my colleagues: We get along and share the basics of our personal lives (what we did over the weekend, where we’re going on vacation, etc.). I like them, but I wouldn’t really consider any of them “friends” exactly.

I’m connected with several of them on LinkedIn and Twitter where everything we post is primarily professional. Recently however a couple of my coworkers have sent me friend requests on Facebook.

It’s not that I’m posting anything scandalous or embarrassing, but I view Facebook as something for sharing photos and updates about my personal life with my friends and family. I’m not really close enough with my coworkers to be Facebook friends with them (and I certainly don’t want them to see when I throw parties that they aren’t invited to!). How do I say no to their friend request without it being awkward?

Thanks,

Pending Requests


Dear Pending Requests:

One thing that the social media age has done is to create a whole new set of etiquette questions that are tricky to navigate.

In professional settings, the rules for Twitter and LinkedIn are fairly clear. Unless you lock your account, tweets are fair game for anyone to see. LinkedIn is clearly a business-focused platform. It is not entirely clear who is checking LinkedIn posts that often, but it is an easy platform for sending messages to professional contacts and for introducing people to each other.

The two other major social networks are Google+ and Facebook. Google+ is also fairly easy to deal with for two reasons. First, just because someone adds you to a circle, that creates no obligation to add them back. Second, most users of Google+ are posting links to stories of interest rather than personal information. So, the platform itself does not cross social boundaries.

That leaves Facebook.

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Facebook is primarily a place for people to post things relevant to their personal lives. Certainly, there are plenty of people who have a professional component to their Facebook pages. I post lots of links to things I write there, for example. But, I also post pictures of my dogs, photos from gigs playing the saxophone in a blues band, comments on movies, and check-ins at restaurants and social events.

And–as your letter points out–that is where things get tricky. There are two aspects to the complexity.

The first aspect is that our social circles are complicated. We have family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and an extended social network. Google+ tried to deal with this complexity by creating different circles you could choose to share with. Facebook, because of its origins as a social tool for college students, glossed over these distinctions. Consequently, there is only one level of connection in Facebook-friend. While Facebook does allow you to create different groups of friends and choose who you share your updates with, their system isn’t very intuitive and most users end up sharing all of their updates with everyone on their friend list.

Different Expectations

These different circles influence what you want to share with other people, but also what they expect from you. So, if you are talking to an acquaintance that you bump into at the supermarket you might mention a party you had the week before. Acquaintances are not offended if they were not invited to a party you held, because they know they are not that close to you.

You also choose what you disclose to people. If you are going through a rough patch in a personal relationship, you might not choose to broadcast that in the workplace. You may simply not want to discuss it with people at work. Indeed, there are times when you may use work as a refuge from personal problems, and so blurring the boundaries between those spheres can cause difficulties.

The second aspect that makes this problem difficult is that we are rarely explicit about the nature of the relationship we have with other people. Except in situations in which you mark those you are and are not romantically involved with (that person is just a friend), the specific relationship you have with other people is left unstated.

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That can cause a problem in work environments. You might be friendly with a set of colleagues, but not feel like you are truly friends with them. However, they might enjoy their interactions with you and feel like you are getting to be friends. Consequently, there are opportunities for misinterpretation of information on Facebook that can bruise your relationship with colleagues.

So, what can you do?

I think your best bet is to do nothing. That is, you can ignore Facebook friend requests or even turn them down. Friend requesters are not alerted directly that their invitation was denied.

This strategy works, because people differ in how seriously they take friendship on Facebook to be. I tend to accept anyone who requests to be friends on Facebook (provided they don’t obviously look like they are hoping to send me spam). Because I have a large number of connections, I don’t interpret any particular connection as reflecting a close personal relationship.

At the same time, I have friends who restrict their connections on Facebook to family and close friends. For them, the decision about making a particular connection is more consequential.

Part of what this means is that someone who sent you a friend request on Facebook might just be expanding their Facebook network without thinking that the connection has any deeper implications. Individuals like this will not be offended if you don’t accept their invitation. In fact, a week after making a friend request, they might not even remember they sent one. So, there is a good chance that if you ignore someone’s friend request, they will never even notice.

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The other reason it is useful to do nothing is that it helps you maintain some of the ambiguity in your social relationships with coworkers. While you may not want to have close friends in the workplace, there is no reason to explicitly tell people that. You run the risk of creating feelings of rejection by creating a fine boundary between people who are “friends” and those who are “coworkers.”

In addition, social relationships are fluid. You move closer and more distant from people over the years. Someone who starts out as a coworker might someday become a friend. If you keep the relationship ill-defined, it ensures that there is no awkwardness if you do get closer to some of your colleagues.

Finally, don’t stress over it too much. Dealing with social media can sometimes get to feel like high school all over again. The teenage years are filled with angst about social groups and friendship. It was possible to spend hours on the phone talking about what one friend did to another.

Facebook relationships don’t deserve that level of scrutiny. The actual decision about whether to accept a friend request on Facebook is less consequential than it appears.


If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.

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