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Behind you! It's a friend request!

OK, here’s a hypothetical situation. Imagine a situation where a supervisor and a supervisee at some place of employment happen to both be members of one of these new-fangled on-line social networks. For the sake of this hypothesis, let’s use Facebook, although there are a bunch of them with differences that might make or might not change the situation. Anyway, let’s say Facebook.

Now, again for our hypothetical situation, let’s imagine a moderately friendly or collegial relationship—not the meeting-for-drinks and I-like-those-shoes relationship, not a speak-when-spoken-to and where’s-that-report relationship, but the how-are-your-kids and I-saw-a-movie-you-would-like relationship. A friendly workplace, a friendly relationship, but a workplace and a supervisor-supervisee.

Now, the supervisee facebook-friends the supervisor. The supervisor approves the network arrangement. I want to avoid specifying gender at this time, so let’s call the supervisor Jean and the supervisee KK.

It seems to me that by approving that friend request, the Jean may have brought that on-line environment into the workplace environment within the meaning of the law. I don’t know of any case law on the topic (nor would I, as I am not an attorney or anything like one), but I think that the spirit of the law may well include the on-line off-hours realm if Jean has granted that access.

Now, I’m not sure how this all works. There is clearly a legal distinction between (f’r’ex) Jean leaving girlie magazines on an office desk and Jean leaving girlie magazines in the trunk of a car. But what about girlie magazines left on the dashboard of Jean’s car, parked in the supervisor’s parking space right by the entrance, where KK and the rest of the crew can’t help but see it when they come in? That seems more or less analogous to discovering that your supervisor is a fan of girlie magazines when you log in to look at your notes. And what if Jean gets a bunch of crude and hostile comments on the FB wall, just chock full of racial and sexual nastiness? Let’s say that Jean posts a status update that is at least moderately innocuous: Jean is feeling a little down. Jean’s FB friends (who may be Jean’s actual friends or not—KK has no way of knowing) can write all sorts of things about feeling up or going down, and KK will see those. Yes, the software does allow KK to hide all of Jean’s stuff entirely, but by the time KK has decided that there’s a pattern there rather than one or two errant comments, the damage has been done. KK will never look at Jean the same way again.

I suspect that the real likelihood of a lawsuit would involve Jean’s friends mocking religion and religious people on Jean’s wall, in a case were Jean is aware that KK is a church-goer. I think that the law is being narrowed by cases, rather than expanded, at this point, so I would guess that KK would lose such a case if it came to a judge, and would almost certainly (I am guessing) lose unless Jean were personally to write nasty comments on the wall after issuing the invitation. So the hypothetical I am envisioning, with KK doing the friending and Jean merely providing the wall for other comments seems like a loser before a judge. But I’m not actually that interested in the outcome of the case. The law was written before on-line social networking existed, and if it doesn’t cover the issue, that’s not altogether surprising.

No, I’ve got hold of the hostile-workplace language and the legal question as one end of the tangle. The whole thing is strange to me—the interaction of on-line social networking, the collapse of formality and acquaintanceship, the changing concept of privacy, the whole workplace thing, all of that. My middle age and our cultural adolescence. It seems to me that there’s a conflict, or at least a potential conflict, between an increasing sense that employees should be free from unwanted social pressures of various kinds within the workplace and an increasing sense that the workplace should be informal and personal, rather than formal and businesslike. Compartmentalization used to be considered a Good Thing, and that extended to sexual harassment of the secretaries. Now, we seem to have eschewed compartmentalization (Facebook particularly seems to find it threatening to its business model), but does that extend to more sexual harassment? We seem to have eschewed sexual harassment along with race-baiting and other forms of workplace hostility, but does that extend to maintaining impersonal compartmentalization?

I mean—look, it’s obvious to me that Facebook should not be used for both professional and personal connections. And yet, it is used for both professional and personal connections, and because of that there is pressure on individuals to use it for that. And it’s not just Facebook, although the combination of Facebook’s market share and aggressive anti-privacy norms make it the biggest elephant in the proverbial. What I’m saying, there’s a world of new tricks out there, and sometimes I feel like a very old dog indeed.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I've had a few students send me friend requests, all of which I refuse, and I've made that announcement in class several times: that I do that by personal policy; that it's school policy, as well. They joke about other teachers not following the same standard, which I treat as water off the duck's proverbial.

The school's policy strikes me as deeply wise, and the other teachers' actions as deeply foolish. I tend to believe the same policy should apply to any circumstance where They should not be in My Business. Still, the question stands about lines and where to draw them. How to explain the line drawn is another interesting question.

Say your boss sends you a friend request. What then?


Say your boss sends you a friend request. What then?

Sue her!


Genius! I'm coming to you for all my legal advice!

I've got colleagues who deal with the situation by having two separate accounts, one for work and one for personal items. That strikes me as a slightly complicated but generally reasonable approach.

I basically use LinkedIn for work-type connections and Facebook for friend-type connections. There is some overlap, but I would never friend my boss on Facebook, and if he tried to friend me, I would say "Hey -- how about we connect on LinkedIn instead?"

For one thing, if you friend your boss, you presumably can't complain about work on your Facebook anymore.

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