By Jeff Gillis & Mike Simpson

It may be hard to remember a time when sharing pictures online of what you ate for dinner or tagging your co-workers in the latest memes wasn’t a part of everyday life, but in 2005, just 5% of U.S. adults used at least one social media platform. In contrast, by 2019, social media use among Americans had grown to 72%.

With more than 7 in 10 people logged into social media, and over half using platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat on a daily basis, you might find it difficult to control who sees your content. Not only are your grandparents likely keeping tabs on your posts, but you may find your boss and colleagues scrolling through your feed too. Funny pet videos are one thing, but how open do we want to be about our relationships, political affiliation, or life outside the office?

Believe it or not, studies suggest letting employees use social media during work hours can benefit their overall productivity, but what happens when your co-workers (or even boss) decide they want to follow you online, too?

For a closer look at how people manage their social media work-life balance, we surveyed over 1,000 employees about their self-censorship behaviors online. Keep reading to see how normal it is to be followed online by colleagues, how often we censor our posts, and the lengths we’re willing to go to ensure that co-workers can’t see everything.

Keeping Track of Accounts

Most experts will tell you one thing is absolutely crucial to work success, but it may have little to do with your overall performance: building relationships. Like it or not, no one works on an island, and building functional, effective relationships with peers and co-workers is often pivotal for whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

So what do you do if chatting up your co-workers doesn’t always come naturally?

If you’re committed, there are plenty of ways to boost your social skills around the office – focus on your nonverbal communication, share credit for the work you do, try to help others find their success – but you might also consider taking your professional relationships digital.

Facebook was the most popular platform for building social relationships with co-workers (nearly 98%), followed by Instagram (82%), Snapchat (almost 76%), and Twitter (65%). Considering that most working Americans spend more time (nearly 2,000 hours a year) with their colleagues than with their families, navigating social media at work can be tricky. Roughly 3 in 10 employees accepted a friend invite from co-workers to “keep the peace,” and 1 in 5 admitted to keeping a separate Twitter account for work purposes.

When it comes to blurring the social media line at work, you may get more than you bargained for with your friend list. Ninety-five percent of employees friended the co-workers they interact with on a daily basis, in addition to those they don’t regularly interact with (over 66%), higher-ups (48%), and employees they are responsible for managing (about 27%).

Personal Privacy

Social media taboos that should be avoided at all costs: spamming your feed, oversharing relationship drama, and harassing your friends and followers with “miracle” products you just happen to be selling.

It’s also advised to refrain from following certain colleagues on social media: your boss, co-workers with whom you have strained relationships, and anyone too far below your pay grade, for example. Still, the friend or follow button can’t be ignored forever, and you may find yourself socially linked with people you’d rather not share your life with.

Nearly 27% of people admitted to censoring their content for a quarter of their posts, followed by 14% censoring themselves in half of their social media posts that colleagues could see. People at least 50 years old also censored their social media content 20% more often than employees in their 20s.

The most popular topics to filter? Political opinions (36%), drinking and drug use (34%), negative remarks about the company (32%), and complaining about negative experiences (30%). Like to flex your civic responsibilities online? Not only can political conversations make office life tense, but also overly politicizing your social media feed can have negative ramifications for your professional career in states where retaliation isn’t illegal.

Filtered Out

What happens in the privacy of your own home stays there, right? Well, not if it ends up on social media.

It’s not uncommon to see substance use (including drugs and alcohol) on social media, but that doesn’t mean you want everyone at work to know about your wild weekend activities. Forty-one percent of employees in their 20s admitted to avoiding posting content that involved drinking or drug use. And similar to 34% of professionals in their 20s, the most avoided online content for people in their 30s (almost 27%) and 40s (45%) was political feelings.

By the time employees reached their 50s, social priorities had shifted to concerns about opinions on the company and colleagues. Around 31% of respondents in their 50s or older avoided posting about the company they worked for, while nearly as many refrained from social posts about other employees or complaints about a negative experience.

Omitting the Details

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hacked. With increasing concern over who has access to our digital data – and what they’re allowed to use that data for – there are many reasons you should understand privacy controls on social media.

If a colleague or boss follows you online, you might immediately want to know how to use privacy settings to control what they see, too. Seventy-seven percent of respondents acknowledged using privacy settings on their social posts, followed by around 76% who did the same for their photos. Slightly fewer people utilized privacy controls on their social stories (over 62%) and check-ins (62%).

Top priority? Avoiding embarrassing pictures. Nearly 51% of people had removed a tag of themselves on a photo to keep their colleagues from seeing the content. Similarly, 49% of people removed tags from a post, while 45% didn’t allow others to tag them in photos at all. More than 1 in 5 employees had asked someone to take down a picture of them, and nearly as many had done the same for a post.

Putting It Out There

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are increasingly regarded as public spaces, but there are some steps you can take to ensure your data is as private as possible. Sure, you can start by adjusting the settings for each social media profile, but you may also need to reconsider the permissions you’ve granted to third-party apps that have access to what you share.

On the other hand, if you opt to keep your profile public, don’t be surprised if you find co-workers lurking on your content. Roughly 1 in 3 employees believed companies should be able to use social media activity as a background check, and 1 in 10 were required to disclose their social media profiles as a part of the hiring process.

Sure, your social media feed is your business. If you want to post (more than once) about your undying love for Dwayne Johnson films, go right ahead. Just remember: The company you work for may have different ideas about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. While your employer may not be able to dictate what you post online completely, companies are allowed to include clauses in your employment contract that pertain to social media. In many cases, you can be held responsible for what you say about the company, your co-workers, and your clientele. One in 3 employees reported knowing someone whose employer had terminated a team member as a result of their social media activity, and 2 in 5 said their company had strict rules about what they shared online.

Social Expectations

A few years ago, social media was an emerging concept – something we didn’t know what to expect from or how big it would eventually get. Today, not only do grandparents or nieces and nephews have accounts, but you might find your next-door neighbor’s dog following you, too.

Social media has now overflowed into our professional lives. A majority of people acknowledged following at least some of their co-workers online, and nearly half had forged social connections with their bosses. And while some companies may have strict rules about how their employees utilize social media, many people admitted to censoring their content or using privacy filters to ensure their co-workers couldn’t see everything going on in their personal life.

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Methodology and Limitations

This study was conducted using survey data compiled from users on the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform. To qualify to take the survey, participants needed to have been employed (either part time or full time) and been followed or friended by a colleague on their social media accounts at least once. There were a total of 1,024 participants. The demographic features of participants are as follows:

  • 46.1% were men, with a margin of error of 5% using 95% confidence interval testing
  • 53.9% were women, with a margin of error of 4% using 95% confidence interval testing
  • Participants ranged in age from 18 to 74 with a mean of 36.1 and standard deviation of 10.5
    • 28.9% were aged 20 to 29, with a margin of error of 6% using 95% confidence interval testing
    • 41.5% were aged 30 to 39, with a margin of error of 5% using 95% confidence interval testing
    • 16.9% were aged 40 to 49, with a margin of error of 8% using 95% confidence interval testing
    • 12.7% were aged 50 to 74, with a margin of error of 9% using 95% confidence interval testing

This study was meant to explore the blurred lines that can happen between personal social media accounts and the workplace. It is purely exploratory. Due to this, hypotheses were not statistically tested. Future research could aim to explore this topic with more granularity, potentially across industries, and explore more of the feelings that come with having co-workers and bosses following or friending an employee on their personal social media. Data were based on self-report which can come with issues such as exaggeration and telescoping.

Fair Use Statement

Want to hit the share button on this piece? Don’t worry; we don’t mind if you want to keep a privacy filter on our study. We only ask that you include a link back to this page in your piece when you utilize our findings for any noncommercial use.