The Workplace Frenemy: Is Social Media Sabotaging Your Office Relationships?


Mar 20, 2024
Jane mindlessly scrolled through her Instagram feed during a short break, laughing at a few memes when suddenly - her polite chuckle turned into a loud, audible gasp. There, staring back at her in unfiltered glory, was a video posted by Steve from accounting.

At first, she thought it was a classic workplace prank video. You know the type - someone getting their stapler jello'd or a jumpscare around the corner. But as the video played on, Jane realized with horror that it was far worse than an innocuous office shenanigans clip.

Steve, that sarcastic wiseass, had taken a video last Friday at their team's after-work happy hour...and it was incredibly unflattering. There he was, firing off explicit insults about Jane's outfit from earlier that day. "Who told Carol to let her dowdy aunt pick out her clothes? That floral nightgown look needs to be burned!"

Apparently under the influence of a few too many overpriced happy hour cocktails, Steve's verbal diarrhea continued in a crude stream of insults captured by his giggling wingman Peter from sales. Jane watched in dismay as colleagues walked by in the background, shooting confused looks at the obnoxious heckling.

She felt a sickening knot in her stomach, replaying all their recent interactions. Just last week, she had complimented Steve's work on the quarterly sales deck. Was that fake nicety just him playing office politics while he really saw her as a dowd behind her back? The trust was broken.

This insidious example highlights an all-too-common phenomenon - the oversharing social media frenemy unknowingly sabotaging workplace relationships. What starts as seemingly harmless social connects can quickly devolve into a Pandora's box of strained ties, awkward tensions, and compromised workplace respect.

"I'll never be able to look at Steve the same way again," Jane laments, recounting her story over a consoling glass of wine. "Social media is really drilling these unexpected divisions in office dynamics."

Jane's unsettling experience reflects findings that 51% of US employees have dealt with conflicts arising from following or being followed by coworkers on various social sites. Posts mocking others, venting about jobs/managers, or simply exposing controversial personas are frequently to blame.

So, in today's era of over-sharing every intimate detail of one's life to a digital audience, is maintaining professional distance for the best? Or are work friendships better off keeping it old-school offline only? We've gathered insights to help navigate this increasingly blurry territory.

Your Cabernet-Fueled Rants Could Cost You That Promotion

There's no question that social media permeates our daily existence, with oversharing baked into the very fabric. From live-tweeting every mercurial thought to leaving no brunch unlawfully filtered on Instagram, the boundaries between our personal and professional selves have never been hazier.

"Most of us have two very distinct personas - our social media self and our workplace self," explains an I/O psychologist specialized in digital behaviors. "For many, the social media version is their raw, uncensored voice without a filter. It's like The Office's Meredith Palmer after a few rounds at the local watering hole."

Unfortunately, he warns that repeatedly exposing this unrestrained persona to colleagues online is an easy way to snowball into damaged workplace dynamics.

"It creates this incongruent sense of who someone truly is versus the more polished, diplomatic person you think you know at the office," he says. "That mental dissonance breeds uncomfortable feelings that bleed over into work interactions, even if unconsciously."

This rings true for Sam, a creative director who learned the hard way about the backstabbing power of the cabernet-fueled rant vent. After a tough week, Sam let off some steam by posting a profanity-laced diatribe on Facebook about his agency's toxic culture. He went to town mercilessly mocking the demanding client, passive-aggressive bosses, and terrible work-life balance.

"It felt so cathartically good in the heat of the moment to let it all out," Sam says. "Plus, I thought it was just my friends seeing it, not anyone from work."

Unfortunately, a few colleagues from other teams were among his Facebook friends. Within 24 hours, screenshots made their way over to his manager, who was displeased to say the least. His contract was not renewed at the end of the year "due to attitude issues."

"In retrospect, I should've never burned that workplace bridge by ranting with such scorching intensity in a public forum," laments Sam. "Even if it was meant to be venting amongst peers, I basically stamped out any chance for promotions or growth by giving people a very different, uncensored look at who I really am."

Paper Trails That Never Disappear

With billions of users across platforms like Facebook, X, Instagram and more, the likelihood of colleagues seeing your unfiltered persona has increased exponentially. Even if you're not directly connected, screenshots and shares can make any compromising post a career-limiting move.

"I consider everything on social media a permanent paper trail since stuff spreads so easily," says Brian, an auditor navigating this oversharing world. "One wrong move insulting a manager or client, even if it seems harmless venting, could tank an entire job prospect."

Brian’s perspective rings true for many. In the 2022 Workplace Rant-O-Meter study, 37% of hiring managers admitted to passing on candidates after discovering overly controversial or distasteful social media posts. From pictures of drunken debauchery to a litany of incendiary political takes, the trail of digital crumbs can too easily undermine professional reputations.

On the other end, Staci’s friend learned this lesson through an uncomfortable confrontation after some edgy posts about her new boss. "My bestie started this awesome new job and got a little too comfortable roasting her manager's annoying quirks on X," Staci recounts. "But one of her coworker's brothers saw the subtweets and showed the manager."

The fallout was a disciplinary meeting to discuss Staci's friend's "unprofessional conduct" that could have easily turned into termination. Thankfully apologies were made, but the fracture in their working relationship may never fully heal.

Don't Even Think About Those #ButtholeThoughts

While insensitive language or controversial topics pose obvious risks, sometimes the most innocuous posts have drawn unnecessary attention. Just ask old buddy Paul about his #ButtholeThoughts incident.

Since hitting a mid-life renaissance after his divorce, the formerly straitlaced accountant embraced a new outlook on radical authenticity and truth-telling embodied by his "Butthole Thoughts" blog. Basically, he'd review mundane daily experiences with crassly unfiltered takes.

"Going for my annual checkup with my doctor was truly a marathon of #ButtholeThoughts. This dude's breath could Chernobyl an entire nursery full of newborns' nostrils! How is this a medical professional?" read one characteristically cheeky post.

While completely harmless save for some R-rated humor, his posts quickly became lunchroom gossip fodder amongst coworkers. Even though he kept things anonymous by never naming his employers, someone eventually identified him as the provocative voice behind #ButtholeThoughts. His boss was not amused.

"He called me into his office and said I've been given a 'great gift' of dental insurance - a not-so-subtle dig at my posts calling out the doc's halitosis," He recalls with the perfect amount of sheepish grin. "I tried pitching #ButtholeThoughts as avant-garde, but management clearly disagreed."

While he avoided more serious repercussions like termination, he admits he significantly dialed back the crass bloggings to avoid continued workplace harassment or conflicts, choosing to preserve professionalism at the office over radical authenticity.

Living Your Truth at What Cost?

In 2024's era of personal branding ubiquity and AI, many argue that some oversharing is inevitable if you want to cultivate an authentic presence that resonates. After all, pretending to be bland, corporate drones won't win many hearts and minds for your "personal brand." By that same token, hyper-authenticity to the point of airing every petty workplace grievance is a surefire path to ostracization.

"It's a very delicate tightrope to walk," says personal a branding consultant. "Being unapologetically yourself is the key to cultivating a truly differentiated digital brand. But you also have to be strategic in separating that persona enough from colleagues who might not appreciate the full You experience."

For one marketing manager, maintaining an online personal brand while climbing the corporate ladder at a Fortune 500 company is a constant tug-of-war. As an up-and-coming creator cultivating a following for her authentically transparent takes on the ad world's diversity problems, she's felt pressures to mute that voice around coworkers.

"I very intentionally separate my risqué GameOfAlphaBaddie Instagram from colleagues," she explains. "That's my space to clapback about hypocritical DEI practices with my signature spicy tone. But I turn that down at the office as to not give the marketing dinosaurs ammunition against me."

While disappointing to not fully integrate her personal brand's progressive ethos into the 9-5 culture, she understands keeping things partitioned is pragmatically necessary right now. She hopes to eventually work somewhere her full truth can be celebrated without compromises.

For comedian Peter, however, maintaining full authenticity at all costs has been the driving force - workplace politics and relationships be damned. The funnyman rose to viral stardom with a delectable combo of dark, irreverent humor and keen punchlines about his corporate day job hell.

"I'm not really built for friend-mentoring and office bonding. My art is dragging the dehumanizing futility of this whole corporate ritual," Peter says. "I'd much rather have my manager unfollow me in disgust than self-censor my truth."

Kyle's commitment to radical transparency has definitely paid dividends creatively, with sold-out comedy tours and some TV/film interest. But it's also an admitted detriment to his day job career prospects, with several job terminations already under his belt from HR violations like mocking bosses by name online or accidentally livestreaming meetings with clients.

At the end of the day, Peter is unbothered. "I'll never understand how people wake up and crave being soulless husks for some fancy job title. The 'professional' industrial complex can cry about it from their suites all they want. My art comes first."

An Ounce of Prevention Worth the Pound Cure

With such blurred boundaries and high stakes, being proactive about social media habits is essential. Step one? Actually, reviewing your app privacy settings with care to curate who sees what.

"So many of these conflicts boil down to oversharing content with a much wider audience than realized," says Patrick, the founder of a social media consulting firm. "Think about segmenting things into your colleagues, acquaintances, inner circle, and strangers - and setting viewing levels appropriately across Facebook, X, Instagram."

According to a study, more than 50% of employees are uncertain how to properly utilize privacy settings or tech boundaries to prevent oversharing at work. And for the social media savvy, refresher courses on the latest update are always wise. Facebook's labyrinth of customization settings for friend groups alone changes with dizzying frequency.

Establishing guidelines with coworkers is another smart, proactive step. Being upfront with insecurities or boundaries, like asking to not be featured in photos from office happy hours, can prevent mishaps. Looking out for one another is key.

"I'm always wary if I see a coworker being uncomfortably mocked in a video, even joking stuff, because I know how that feeling compounds at the place you have to show your face," says Lisa, a medical coder who prioritizes consent in her social circles. "Checking in to ask if they're cool with something being posted goes a long way."

At the end of the day, erring on the side of privacy as a default is advisable. That crazy Vegas trip is likely best kept for the relatively harmless "inner circle" audience, rather than potential boss stumbling upon your debauchery. Rules of thumb can help:

  • If you wouldn't air it out to your grandma, it's probably unsuitable for work connections too.
  • Keep the naughty, nice - that politics/religion/substance abuse content can wait for post-career life.
  • Accept colleagues' virtual requests selectively. Do you genuinely consider them "friends"? If not, it’s ok to reject.
  • Use common sense about who from work circles can see your updates. That random coworker from the mail room? Might want to Instagram story with caution.
"You always have to remember that every time you hit 'post,' there's a realistic chance someone from your workplace community might see it filter through," reminds Dr. Sullivan. "Conscious share settings and some restraints upfront are the easiest way to avoid that sinking dread of an overshare catastrophe."

Crafting Company Guidelines That Make Sense

While well-intentioned personal accountability is admirable, organizations themselves also need to establish clearer social media guidelines for employees. Far too many workplace policies are hopelessly out of date.

"I've seen corporate policies still referencing things like 'internet bulletin board services' from like 1998," exclaims Kelly, a human resource consultant helping companies modernize. "There's no acknowledgment of social norms that Facebook, X, and TikTok have created. No guidance for personal branding in the digital era."

Kelly advocates for comprehensive handbooks crafted around core principles of informed consent, privacy, respect among colleagues, and accountability. Going a step further, some companies have created internal employee resource groups moderated by trusted ambassadors to model better practices around digital socialization.

"Our ERG chats on Microsoft Teams and Slack allow for more authentic interactions without the wild west free-for-all of open social media," says Angela, Special Assistant to the CEO at an energy tech startup. "People can bring their full personas, including riffing and playful roasts, within reasonable bounds."

Angela says an unexpected benefit is that the social connections formed in these spaces have translated to more positive on-the-job personnel relationships too. Colleagues get the chance to see each other as well-rounded humans in a structured environment with clear rules.

"We're not being performative corporate robots all the time, yet we retain awareness of our shared values and cultural pillars that keep things productive and appropriate."

The key, Angela emphasizes, is finding that middle ground where employees have outlets for self-expression without compromising mutual respect or feeling constrained by draconian policies.

For employers serious about progress, conducting social media audits, focus groups, and surveying employees about their online experiences, is crucial. Historically underrepresented groups are most vulnerable to marginalization and microaggressions exacerbated by covert social media subcultures too.

"I've talked to so many professionals of color who feel deeply alienated by their peers' polarized politics popping up on their feeds," laments Kelly. "Policies need to reflect how these outside voices compound toxicity, mistrust, and lack of psychological safety at work, too."

Getting employees of all backgrounds to buy into the importance of solidarity, discretion, and peer advocacy on social spaces is key. Done well, it cultivates positive company culture and combats things like distasteful meme-sharing or insensitive venting that festers resentments.

The Journey is Just Beginning

If the status quo remains, that constant, nagging voice in the backs of workers' minds likely won't disappear. You know the one...that fear of your weekend persona clashing with the coworker's expectations. Or wondering if Terry from sales actually saw your unhinged 3 AM doom scroll on geopolitics. Ok, we all know of a certain political force in the U.S. who sends unhinged messages at all hours of the night and early morning.

"These social media boundaries will keep being eroded without serious education and understanding between companies, employees, and the fundamental realities of how personal branding has evolved," Dr. Sullivan affirms. "We're in uncharted territory in many ways."

For many workers, that lingering anxiety persists. The memory of that drunken insult video hasn't faded. Every time you see him/her in the breakroom, small talk is now a bit more strained and uncomfortable like an obnoxious elephant perpetually squatted.

Will they mend the frayed threads of their cordial office relationship? There's now constant skepticism lurking under the surface of whether one’s passive-aggressive true colors came out on that ill-advised Instagram video.

Or maybe it's just a tempest in a teapot - momentary liquid courage leading to nothing more than cringing embarrassment once sobered up. Regardless, the seeds of doubt have been planted, with social media as the invasive ivy tendril keeping authentic trust from fully blossoming.

So, while gaffes and inevitable oversharing may always persist, perhaps there's hope yet. More thoughtfulness and intentionality around personal branding, comprehensive workplace guidelines accommodating this new era, and open dialog about boundaries can cultivate healthier relationships. With some diligence, the workplace frenemy could become the workplace friend once more.

The next time that urge strikes to post an impromptu roast of the office hot-head, or go scorched earth detailing a colleague’s microaggressions, pause. Consider the repercussions through a wider lens.

Is this grievance better addressed through official HR channels or a private discussion? Will insulting their character flaws on social media actually improve the situation, or has that particular bridge been burned too severely? There's nuance in venting properly.

Also keep in mind - some battles are simply not worth fighting publicly where colleagues could inadvertently become collateral damage. As the old adage goes, it's often better to be kind than to be right when it comes to preserving workplace relationships.

By being more purposeful in how the uncensored personal brand interfaces with professional circles, the dreaded frenemy phenomenon can be avoided more easily. At the very least, those conflicts transcend momentary impulsive grievances into harbored, longstanding grudges.

The Path Forward is Mindful Authenticity

At the end of the day, striving for mindful authenticity - that radical middle path between curated fakery and reckless oversharing - is the ideal to uphold. It requires asking tough questions about personal values and priorities.

For those being aggressively true to their art and personal ethos is the hill worth dying on, even if it compromises a traditional career path. If the purpose is pushing boundaries and sparking conversations, some bridges must be burned.

For corporate professionals, compartmentalizing personal brand expression while ascending the ranks is pragmatically necessary right now. Perhaps their prolific accomplishments and influential voice will reshape the culture from within over time. Or they could always branches off to greener pastures that actively embrace their holistic selves.

For old school types seeking to preserve decorum and emotional discipline, doubling down on social media temperance and respecting established boundaries is advisable. If indulging the authenticity flex isn't a priority, no need to fix what isn't broken in relationships.

Whichever path chosen, open and honest communication channels with colleagues are crucial for navigating this ever-shifting landscape. Lead with compassion, understanding that we're all works-in-progress finding our way.

Forging ahead with intentionality about social media's role and self-awareness about personas is key. Only then can this emergent cultural shift away from fren-emy dynamics and take root in a sustainable way.

At the end of the day, celebrating each other's humanity is what workplace relationships should emulate, not perpetuate personal cold wars. Our future depends on bridging those divides, one conscientious post at a time.
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