Maintaining professional distance in the workplace can be challenging at the best of times. There is a very fine line between managing interpersonal relationships, ensuring that colleagues and co-workers get along with each other, and developing such close relationships that potential conflicts of interest or social problems arise.
This juggle has become even more difficult with the advent of social media, which can blur that fine line, and complicate relationships in a whole new range of ways.
Social media has evolved from the early networks, like MySpace or MSN to a whole range of different platforms. There are now professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, image-sharing sites such as Instagram or Snapchat (where images self-destruct after a certain time) and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Whatsapp etc. for social interaction.
As with any other tool, there are some positive uses for social media in the workplace. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, can be a helpful way to connect with likeminded professionals, or introduce co-workers to other people whose interests may be professionally aligned.
Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook allow businesses to share news or promote themselves, or permit staff members in different geographical locations to stay in touch. Indeed, many large companies use personalised social media tools such as Yammer to enable staff throughout the organisation to communicate internally.
Unfortunately, social media can also be misused in the workplace context. In many situations, it is not colleagues being 'friends' on social media that is the main issue, but rather the dissemination of too much information, inappropriate content or the sharing of information with an inappropriate audience.
It is easy to over-share on social media, forget who the information is potentially accessible to, and the fact that it is often permanent once it is shared.
Types of inappropriate social media use may include:
The most significant misuse of social media in the workplace arises from the potential for the professional lines to be blurred - including where inappropriately close, possibly sexual or romantic relationships form. This is especially important in situations where there is a power imbalance - for example, between a manager and a staff member, a teacher and a student, or a treating doctor or psychologist and their patient.
In these circumstances, it is likely best to avoid a social media 'friendship' completely, in order to ensure that the appropriate professional distance is maintained.
Employers should have clear policies in place which set out the rules and obligations for employees interacting with colleagues or mentioning the workplace on social media, and the consequences for a breach of the policy.
A coherent and well-communicated policy can prevent or limit the fallout from many of the issues associated with a failure to maintain professional distance.
If you are seeking advice on implementing a social media policy, or you require a workplace investigation into a potential conflict of interest or inappropriate relationship or misuse of social media, we can help. WISE Workplace offers both full and supported investigations. You can also find out more about the issues involved in maintaining professional distance here.
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