When it comes to social media and business relationships, LinkedIn is the go-to place for professional networking, while other platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok have historically been the realm of personal interactions with friends and family. But is this view changing? The answer is... it depends.

The rise of "personal" social media in business networking

In the last few years, we’ve seen a big shift in how LinkedIn is being used, with more and more senior executives sharing personal content, such as posts on family, health and well-being. Many CEOs now use it as a way to humanize themselves within their professional network.

But it’s not just CEOs. For large organizations, the expansion of their brand into traditionally non-business social media platforms is on the rise. One study found that almost half of the top 200 companies in the Fortune 500 have active Instagram accounts. What’s more, well over half of millennial and Gen Z workers are now reportedly looking to TikTok for career advice.

As the lines blur between our personal and professional personas, leaders may deem it acceptable to follow employees on all social media platforms, particularly in this era of remote work, where building culture and connection has proven challenging. However, there are several factors that need to be considered before making such a potentially risky move.

“There may be some employees who welcome it,” says Maria Amato, a Korn Ferry Associate Client Partner in its HR practice. “But there are also almost certainly as many employees who will not,” she warns.

Creepy or caring?

One disadvantage with following employees is the potential for favoritism. If, for example, you ‘friend’ only one or two people on a team of 10, you might be perceived as playing favorites, which could be counterproductive. A study by Ohio State University found that perceived workplace favoritism led employees to feel more negative emotions toward their organization, less loyalty to the company, and less job satisfaction.

Furthermore, Korn Ferry experts say there is a real risk of employees feeling indirectly mandated to accept friend requests. “There could be an unspoken pressure to accept the invitation if it’s from your boss,” says Tamara Rodman, a Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner in the Culture, Change and Communications practice.

However, if a social media connection between a leader and employee does occur, one advantage may be a greater ability to support that employee. For example, knowing that an employee is dealing with a sick family member or has recently got engaged could alter a manager’s approach to that employee in a way that genuinely makes them feel seen and valued as an individual.

“If done appropriately, following a direct report on social media might make you a better people manager,” says Sarah Jensen Clayton, a Korn Ferry Senior Client with its Culture and Change practice. However, she stresses that it would still be difficult to apply a blanket policy on making connections, given people’s varying stances on social media. “It needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” she adds.

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Social media: A two-way street

Leaders should also be aware that connecting on social media is a two-way street that exposes them to potentially unfavorable judgment from their employees. Aside from sharing contentious political views, even liking a certain post or following a certain individual has the potential to spark bad will between employees and leaders.

“It’s another reason that our experts urge extreme caution before treading down the path of workplace social media connections outside of LinkedIn,” says Noah Glantz, an analyst at Korn Ferry. “Social media is a lot more complicated than just posting,” he adds. 

Non-social media approaches to connection

When trying to create a space to connect online with employees about non-work topics, a safe and effective route might be to create a separate channel on Slack or Teams that enables your team to share personal anecdotes, if they choose.

Another approach to fostering connection would be to schedule standing one-on-one meetings with each direct report—in-person or via video-call—where you ask, with genuine sincerity, questions like, “How are things going? What's giving you energy? What's draining you? What have you learned? Where are you stuck? How can I help you?”

“Even sharing your own vulnerability (e.g., times when you got stuck) during these conversations can invite employees to open up and share," says Rodman. “Social media is great. But it's not a replacement for genuine connection.”

As the trend for more personal interaction continues, leaders need to tread a fine line between personal and professional relationships when it comes to connecting with employees across all platforms. Looking at alternative ways to develop connections outside of social media—such as Slack, Teams or standing meetings—could be a better way to navigate this issue.

Want to discover more ways to genuinely connect and engage with employees? Talk to us.