Bosses Do Not Always Make Best Online Pals

The era of social networking Web sites makes it a lot easier to cross the line into friendship with superiors. Lucy Kellaway, a Financial Times columnist, describes the problems with befriending the boss in the real world and online. Kellaway spoke with Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Wednesdays we focus on the workplace. And today we're going to talk about whether it's a good idea to be friends with your boss. This age-old dilemma has a new twist these days - being online friends with your boss.

Joining us is Lucy Kellaway, workplace columnist for the Financial Times newspaper in London. Hello.

Ms. LUCY KELLAWAY (Financial Times): Hello.

MONTAGNE: And welcome back.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: So it's pretty normal these days for young workers, and even some not-so-young workers, to have MySpace or Facebook pages. Since these are personal pages, they can contain blogs or photos you probably wouldn't pin up in your office cubicle. So what happens if your boss asks you to be his or her online friend? I mean, that has a high eek factor, doesn't it?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yeah, the eek factor is deafening on that. It is the ultimate, ultimate nightmare. But what the hell are you supposed to do? If your boss says can I be your friend and you say no, I guess you get fired, and that's the next step. But if you say yes, what about all those pictures of you naked and dancing on a table drunk? Do you really want your boss to see those? And I think the real trouble is that if your boss is a friend on Facebook, Facebook loses all its fun and then you just have to be sensible thereafter.

MONTAGNE: Is it becoming so common for these sort of inter-generational Facebook connections? I mean are bosses or people higher up in management actually reaching out to younger people and asking them to be their friend?

Ms. KELLAWAY: I mean, yes, I guess it's happening a bit. And I think that's terribly weird because your boss is still your boss. It doesn't matter how democratic the company pretends to be. He is the person who could hire or fire you. So it's totally inconceivable that you could genuinely be friends. Good friends means that you're on the same level.

MONTAGNE: Back to these friends' requests. Are we heading to a point where we have a couple of generations of workers who actually have this experience?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yeah. I mean, I think, actually, what's so interesting now is we're in a period of transition, where the younger workers do this as a matter of routine, and the older ones don't. And we're kind of working out what it all means. As the younger ones progress through the workforce, assuming that Facebook is still popular - and maybe it will die, though I actually don't think so - this will become more and more usual.

If everybody has got this kind of personal side to their life which can be accessed by all sorts of people, I don't think it will be quite as weird and quite as dangerous. So maybe we actually may reach the situation where we're all much more tolerant about what people get up to in their private lives, because everyone's doing it.

MONTAGNE: You have written in your columns in the past that since today's workplace is less hierarchal - most places - it often seems easy to be buddies with your boss.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Is there really more equality between employer and employee these days?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Well, this is so dangerous. And it's one of the things that's meant to be marvelous about an egalitarian workplace. But for my money, it's a total nightmare, because you're all kind of supposedly on a team - everyone equally valuable. Only actually your boss can still fire you. And they decide on your promotion and your paycheck. So you aren't equal.

And I've often been in the sort of nightmare situation myself where you're sitting in the canteen with a few of your colleagues and your boss cruises up and says, can I join you, as if all chummy, chummy. And suddenly the conversation dies a death. Because the sort of gossip that were having you can't have anymore. And then can you suck up to your boss in front of your peers? No. You certainly can't be rude. Can you risk a joke? Well, maybe. So it's this sort of thing that what's really going on is completely different from what seems to be going on, which is all perfectly pal-y.

MONTAGNE: Lucy, thanks very much.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Not at all.

MONTAGNE: Lucy Kellaway writes the workplace column for the Financial Times.

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