Lately, I’ve been doing quite a few presentations on social media, including, most recently, one for a school district.

One of the trickiest questions that comes up: Is it "legal" to "friend" a subordinate in the workplace? Or for teachers, is it "legal" to "friend" a student? 

(I use the term "friend" to be the process of making an online connection on the social networking site, Facebook.)

The answer I provided at these sessions is a very qualified "Yes".  It is "legal" in the sense that there isn’t an explicit law prohibiting people from engaging in that activity.

But, and this is a very big "but", the real question to ask is whether it is a good idea to do so and whether it is appropriate to do so.  In some instances, doing so can lead to potential issues in the future. 

In the private workplace, friend requests from a supervisor can be misinterpreted and can put pressure on a subordinate.  And for a supervisor, it is really important to see a subordinate’s private pictures? 

In schools, Facebook relationships could be easily misinterpreted by students and, for teachers, there is a risk that their private information could get distributed by students who have less concern for privacy than others.

Of course, there is not a one-size fits all approach to social media.  It may work for some workplaces and some schools. Others may take a much more restrictive approach.

By raising this, I’m not suggesting that social media in workplaces or schools should be banned.  Teachers, for example, might find a lot of utility in setting "fan pages" for students in their classes and their parents.  Social media is a potent communications tool that isn’t inherently "good" or "bad." How you use it is up to you. 

But workplaces and schools cannot just hope their workers, teachers and students will do the "right thing" about it. Much like e-mail, parameters should be established through guidelines and policies. The time is right now.   It is a lot easier to implement BEFORE a lawsuit happens, than play catchup afterwards. 

  • This is an interesting issue. I am a personal injury attorney in Houston, Texas and we have wrestled some with this and similar issues of social media. Ultimately, my firm wound up blocking social media from use at the office to prevent time waste. But everyone knows the employees are all friends on facebook and can access it through their phones wherever they like. Many of them also ‘friend’ the attorneys, even me. It gets uncomfortable when I see the legal assistant for another lawyer, who considers me a ‘friend,’ posting that she is out at the park with her kids when I know she reported in sick or is claiming to be working out of the office. Sometimes it makes you think “maybe I am better off not having access to this information.”
    You do not want to be rude and decline your subordiantes friend requests, but at the same time, on some issues, ignorance really is bliss. I do not know the answer to what boundaries should be set.

  • Another issue is whether to friend clients. I was initially amenable to accepting friend requests from clients. But, recently, came across a concern that in “friending” a client, the lawyer might be disclosing the existence of an attorney client relationship.