My boss fired me, then 'friended' me
Awkward! Here's what to do when you get a Facebook friend request from someone at work, and you really don't want to accept it.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: Is there some kind of standard etiquette for deciding whom to "friend" on Facebook? Lately I am finding myself in a couple of different quandaries with this. For one, my old boss, who laid me off from my last job with no warning (and no severance pay), has sent me a friend request. I'm still angry and hurt over the way he handled my termination, but should I accept anyway?
Another question: I'm in sales, so I'm in contact with lots of people, most of whom I barely know. Would it be smart to accept their friend requests anyway? I started out saying yes to everyone, but now find my home page cluttered with posts from people I wouldn't recognize if I saw them on the street, and I frankly don't care what they had for breakfast. Can you offer some guidelines? -- Friendly Fred
Dear Fred: As with any fledgling technology, the etiquette here is still evolving, and I don't know of any hard and fast rules about how to pick your Facebook friends. However, you might be interested in a new survey from staffing firm OfficeTeam, which hired an independent research firm to poll senior managers at 1,000 big companies.
The results suggest that most people prefer to keep their personal and professional networks from overlapping too much: 47% said they would not be comfortable with friending a boss, while 48% said they'd rather not be Facebook friends with people they manage. (Only 12% reported being "very comfortable" with that.)
Talkback: Have you had any awkward experiences dealing with colleagues on Facebook? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.
A slight majority (51%) wouldn't mind friending colleagues. When it comes to clients, you're not alone in your ambivalence: Only 7% of the managers polled said they'd be "very comfortable" having clients as Facebook friends; 50% said they wouldn't like it.
So what can you do about friend requests from business acquaintances (including former bosses) you don't really want to accept -- without offending anyone, or burning any professional bridges?
"Especially in this job market, where you want to cultivate as many networking contacts as you can, you want to stay on good terms with everyone," notes Robert Hosking, OfficeTeam's executive director.
Indeed, even if your old boss did you wrong, he was just doing the company's dirty work, and now apparently wants to keep in touch. Why not take him up on it? The same goes for your other professional acquaintances. You never know who might be in a position to help your career a year, or five years, from now.
Of course, Hosking notes, "Facebook is tricky because, let's face it, everyone has an embarrassing photo floating around somewhere, and if an old college friend decides to tag you in a picture he took at a fraternity beerfest 20 years ago, you don't necessarily want all your work contacts to see that."
His solution: "When someone you know strictly through business sends you a friend request, suggest connecting on LinkedIn instead. That is a much more professional venue, and it gives you a graceful 'out.'"
If LinkedIn isn't your thing, Hosking has two other ideas: "Facebook lets you set up custom lists, so that you can accept the person's request but limit what they can see. Or, in the case of your old boss, you can form a group of current and former employees of a particular company, and limit your contact with those people to that group."
He adds: "Familiarize yourself with the privacy settings on both Facebook and LinkedIn, and take advantage of them. If you classify your business contacts into a 'work' list on Facebook, then when a client or other work acquaintance wants to friend you, you can just add them to that list."
As for not wanting to read acquaintances' posts about their breakfasts, you can opt to keep them off your homepage by clicking "Hide" next to any of their posts on your newsfeed. Voila, your homepage is free for more posts from closer pals about their lunches.
Five other general guidelines:
1. If you're tagged in an embarrassing photo... untag yourself, then adjust your privacy settings so that only close friends can see photos.
2. If you want to join various groups... go right ahead, says Hosking. But "if you have colleagues in your network and would rather they didn't see which groups you join, remember to adjust your application settings."
3. If you'd like to be a fan of certain pages... step carefully. "Anyone who can view your profile can see which pages you are a fan of, so you should avoid becoming a fan of any page you're not comfortable sharing with co-workers." For example, you might want to refrain from becoming a Facebook fan of pages that reflect extreme political views --or your goofy inordinate fondness for, say, Crocs.
4. If you love to take quizzes... "you should stop and think before posting quiz results to your Facebook page," says Hosking -- unless you want professional contacts to know what breed of dog or dead rock star you most resemble.
5. If you're thinking of friending your new boss... think twice. "It may seem like a natural extension of amiable office small talk," Hosking says, "but it could become awkward for both of you."
Talkback: Are you "friends" with colleagues on Facebook? Clients? Your boss? Higher ups? Experienced any embarrassing or awkward moments as a result? Sign on to Facebook and tell us below.