To block or not to block: tips on how to manage colleagues on social media

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  • The many hours we spend at work determine how well we get to know each other as colleagues.
  • Managing work relationships is tricky but managing them on social media is even trickier.
  • Expert tips on navigating relationships with colleagues on social media include setting boundaries and staying true to yourself. 

Even if you talk every single day, there’s a strong chance that your best friend isn’t the person who knows what you had for breakfast or the brand of painkiller you take for period pains. That honour probably goes to whoever’s desk is closest to yours at work. Proximity and the many hours we spend every week at the office mean that colleagues get to know each other relatively well.

Sometimes, this leads to solid friendships, and other times, it simply ends in casual conversations while waiting for the microwave to ping. Managing these work relationships can be tricky but managing them on social media is even more so.

We all use and consume social media for different reasons, so there are no clear rules around whether or not colleagues should follow one another online. It’s down to individual discretion and choice — both in terms of how you set your personal account, as well as who you allow to follow you.

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Set your boundaries

For some people, having colleagues follow them on social media is not an issue. Reasons for this can range from infrequent posting and a desire for more followers, to seeing social media as an extension of the work friendship.

Those who don’t want a digital merging of their personal and professional lives choose closed accounts, or have separate accounts where the work one is public, and the private one is, well, private. These two options are easy ways of resolving the work dilemma, and controlling who sees what content. They’re worth considering, given that social media norms in the workplace remain unchartered territory.

A study by staffing service company OfficeTeam explored the rules of engagement for social media and colleagues. Their poll revealed that different platforms set different expectations. For example, 27 percent of respondents said it’s appropriate for colleagues to follow each other on Facebook. Snapchat, on the other hand, was seen as the least appropriate.

However, even on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, which are seen to be more intimate, having an open account welcomes anyone, colleagues included, to your page. They may not even need to follow you. Consequently, caution is recommended.

“Interacting with colleagues on social media can help build stronger relationship, but it should be done with care. You might not want to share everything with work friends that you would with closer personal contacts,” says Brandi Britton, a district president for OfficeTeam.

Know your why

If you choose to have one combined public account, you have less control over your followership, but knowing this means you’ll be careful about the content you post. Anyone, from high school friends to potential employers or clients could see your page.

Akunna Onwu is an admitted advocate who works as an Africa compliance manager at one of the big four banks. She’s also a life, career and business coach. Onwu has a multifaceted career and a broad range of interests, but has chosen to have just one social media account. It’s logistically easier, but because Onwu carefully curates what she posts, there’s an added benefit.

She says, “My current and potential clients have a view of the woman behind the business. In addition, it allows me to share my opinions around topics within my profession with the aim to educate and have a conversation.”

There is, however, a risk involved with having one combined account. Oversharing is perceived differently, and what one individual might consider conventional could be too much for another. Your lifestyle choices could also be up for inspection. Images of shopping sprees, debates around politics, pictures of date night with bae — all this content is up for interpretation and judgement.

Problems could arise if your line manager or colleagues start making assumptions about personal choices, such as how you spend your money, how much you drink on weekends, the clothing labels your children wear and the state of your house. Avoiding this exposure of your private life is the main reason why people have private social media accounts. If you have a closed account, and a colleague requests to follow, you’re not obliged to accept.

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They will quite likely (and correctly) assume you don’t want to merge your office and home lives. You’re similarly within your rights to switch to a private account and block colleagues who you don’t want to have following you. Most won’t have the courage to directly ask you why they’re blocked. And in the absence of an explanation from you, they, too, will likely end up concluding you’re separating your work and private life.

True to you

With one account that represents both her personal and private lives, Onwu believes she’s forced to think carefully about every single post.

“Having a combined account means I’m extremely intentional about what I post,” she says.

This has helped her determine what type of content to share but also set boundaries on what she will and won’t post. Because her account is a public sharing of her work and persona, she’s determined to find the balance between being vulnerable when appropriate, and guarded with content she doesn’t want publicised. Every post is guided by a determination to be genuine and true to herself.

“I believe that my authenticity stems from the fact that I’m vulnerable. My work as a coach often requires me to provide the space for my clients to be vulnerable, and I recognise the strength that that brings in the process,” she adds.

Even when you’ve taken measures to protect yourself, you may have a pesky colleague who’s just waiting to trip you up over a social media post. Usually, they’ll stalk you silently and anonymously, never liking or commenting on your page. If you know who they are, consider blocking them. Hopefully, they’ll presume you’ve shut down your whole account and will move on to focusing on their work.

Are you making these online mistakes?

If you do have colleagues following you, here are social media etiquette tips to safeguard your career:

  • Posting during business hours. Uploading the odd image while you’re waiting for the photocopy machine to warm up, won’t necessarily harm your career. But if you make a habit of using the company’s resources of time and Wi-Fi, you’re in problematic territory. Unless regular social media updates are one of your key performance areas, it’s better to limit your online activity to your personal time. It’s your personal account, after all.
  • Sharing without reading. Reposting or liking content conveys an endorsement of the whole message. Make sure you can stand by every line, hashtag and image that you put up on your account. If it’s on your profile, it might as well be words that came out your mouth.
  • Oversharing. Yes, it’s your account, and yes, you’re free to post what you like. But…not really! If you’ve chosen to merge the personal and the professional, then know that you’re risking overexposure on both sides. Even if your account is locked, colleagues who do have access to your account can easily screenshot or show your posts to those who don’t.
  • Forgetting about Big Brother. No matter how quickly it was deleted, haven’t we all been glad when a particular tweet was found and reshared to give context? If it can happen to celebrities or business leaders, it can definitely happen to you too. Big Brother, aka your boss, aka Twitter trolls, aka your frenemies, are always watching. And screenshotting!

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