Thursday, July 21, 2011

Are You Crossing the Line When It Comes to Online Communications With Colleagues?

When I was a young reporter -- way before the advent of social media or email -- a fellow reporter and I began leaving anonymous messages on an editor's computer. They were something about gremlins from outer space wanting to recruit him for evil purposes.

We, of course, thought we were hilarious, and finally fessed up to the prank after a few days.

The editor looked at us like we were a bit nuts, and I thought that was the end of it. But at 2 a.m., the editor showed up at my door -- drunk. After a confusing and rambling conversation, I finally gathered that he thought I was "interested" in him because of the notes. I was horrified -- the guy was my boss!!

After an assurance it was just a prank, he left. But I learned a valuable lesson about how such communications can't be taken lightly. What you consider a joke may be seen in a very different light by someone else. Read this story I did for Gannett/USAToday:

It happens easily enough: You and a co-worker begin chatting via Twitter or Facebook.

Pretty soon, you're sharing more personal information online with this person that you might otherwise in your workplace cubicle.

You may even confide some thoughts you've never revealed to a significant other. Your connection with this colleague grows stronger and you feel closer to this person with every message.

While experts often recommend that deepening relationships with professional online connections is a good way to help your career, this isn't probably what they meant.

Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Friendship Fix" (St. Martins Griffin, $15.99), explains that rules regarding online interactions are constantly changing and often difficult to navigate, but you have to be careful that you don't cross the line when communicating online with professional contacts.

"It can be easy to get carried away. You say something online, and then all of a sudden, you wish you could take it back," she says. "You have to be careful that the whole situation doesn't snowball."

What Bonior considers to be off-limits:
* Conversations include those that become sexualized.
* Comments you might justify by saying you're "joking around" but that other people might be see as very flirtatious or racy.

Or, you may begin to emotionally confide in this person online, more than you do with a spouse or partner. While the issue of "workplace spouses" — those who have our backs at work and become great confidants — has gotten publicity, such relationships can be slippery slopes because they invite an emotional connection that can fall outside any professional realm, Bonior says.

"We spend a lot of time with people at work, sometimes more than our own families," Bonior says. "So, it's totally natural that you would bond with them, and that can be awesome. These are the people who help us get through our days."

But you can't jump the gun with these relationships, she warns.

While you might begin to share something personal online with a colleague, like exercise tips, "that's no reason to begin sending this co-worker photos of you shirtless," she says. "People are going to react differently to something like that. My advice is to err on the conservative side. What would your grandmother think of it?"

Bonoir says that too-close relationships with a work colleague spurred through online communications can be damaging to your career. For example, if you and your colleague have a personal falling out, that can have a ripple effect on your job because the person may no longer want to work with you on a project.

Or you could face charges of sexual harassment if the online messages are seen as going too far, Bonoir says.

Bonoir offers a number of ways to draw a line so that online communications with a professional contact don't get out of hand. Among her tips:

• Don't overreact. You may be offended by someone's "borderline inappropriate" messages online to you, but that provocative attitude "is part of the person's m.o." she says. "Even if it rubs you the wrong way, this is who they are. They just don't have much finesse."

She says if the messages make you feel very uncomfortable, then you may want to change your privacy settings so you don't see messages from this person.

"And then I would only respond to emails every once in a while," she says. "Or tell them that you're being inundated with emails so you're not going to be responding much. You can find ways to be subtle."

• Use technology. "Technology is actually on our side," she says. "It gives us ways to protect our personal information, so use it. You don't have to reveal everything."

• Be honest. Don't fool yourself into thinking you only see your contact in a professional way when you're looking forward to checking your Facebook page for messages from this person, or you're hiding this person's emails from your partner, she says.

"Ask yourself: Is this just a friendship or am I kidding myself?" she says. It may be time to curtail the relationship if it's becoming too important.


No comments: