You’re sitting in your car between visits and your phone beeps. You check your email and find a Facebook friend request from Hakeem’s mother. You know that he’s often in and out of the hospital and she keeps her friends and family up-to-date about his health using her Facebook page. She mentioned it to you a while ago and you told her it was a great idea. She canceled your last visit and you suspect that he’s back in the hospital. You care about him and his family and would like to know how he is. However, this feels like one of those moments when you could be crossing into uncomfortable territory.
What do you do?
The Social Media Line in the Sand
Social media has become an important tool for many of us to communicate and stay connected. It’s a place where we usually interact with our friends, sharing personal information about our interests and perhaps our families. The reality is that whenever you share personal info online, technically it’s “out there,” available to the world. On social media, though, we have a little control about who sees our info. You can accept or ignore friend requests, choose who to follow, and set security measures to (try to) protect your info. You make a choice when you “like” a page or accept a request to be connected. That choice isn’t always an easy one when the link between your personal and professional lives is crossed.
Some programs have clear policies about professional boundaries. For instance, once agency I worked for designated the time frame for this boundary as 5 years, meaning that I agreed not to pursue a personal relationship with a “client” (my agency’s word) for at least 5 years from the date of discharge. To me, this included social media requests, invitations to parties, sharing my personal email or cell number, etc. It was relatively easy to draw the line in the sand with clear guidance from my agency. What if your agency doesn’t draw these lines for you?
Accept or Ignore?
So, what would you do if you were Hakeem’s service coordinator or service provider? You know that accepting would give his mother access to anything you share on your Facebook page. You will also have access to more info about her, perhaps more than you need to know. You may worry that she will realize if you ignore her request. Here are a few options for approaching this situation:
Accept – You could accept her request and accept that you’ve opened a door. Opening this door could indicate to her that you are willing to be more than her service coordinator/provider because you are willing to share in her personal experience and have her share in yours. You must consider whether or not you are comfortable with her having access to your personal business. If what you share on social media shows a different side of you than what you show in a professional situation, you might want to pause.
Ignore – You could simply ignore the request and wait for her to bring it up. Maybe she won’t. If she does, what will you say?
Discuss – When you see her next, you could bring it up and let her know your thoughts. If you have an agency policy that prohibits social media interactions, then let her know. If there is no such policy, you can tell her that you prefer to keep in touch by phone or email (if allowed by your agency). Yes, it will probably feel awkward but it’s best to be honest and draw the line in the sand immediately so that, hopefully, there will be no hard feelings in the long run.
Whatever choices you make, keep in mind that maintaining professional boundaries is possible within a friendly family-professional relationship. You can be friendly and supportive without crossing the line into personal relationships. If an action makes you feel uncomfortable or could possibly affect the quality or context of your relationship with a family, then follow your instinct and keep to your boundaries. Being too close with a family can affect your ability to remain objective. It can also impact the parent’s ability to make the best decisions for her child and family. It’s really difficult to request a change of providers once you are friends online.
What would you do? How have you handled this situation?
Share your insights and thoughts in the comments below!
Perhaps having a separate social media account for professional relationships could be an option. That is what I would do if I used such an account regularly. However for such requests I just say that though I have a Facebook account, I do not really use it and only check it occasionally, so that is not my preferred way to keep in touch. In my experience parents accept this and we use more old fashioned ways to share info. 🙂
I really like the honest and conversational way you draw the line about your Facebook account, Barbara. I’ve noticed that some people maintain professional and personal social media accounts too. Thanks for adding your ideas to the conversation!
I think honesty is the best policy and best practice would say that it isn’t appropriate to be Face Book Friends with a family WHILE you are currently providing services to them. A simple explanation to the family that while you are working together this is not something you do, but once the child and family are transitioned from your caseload you would like to keep in touch with them in this way. When a family transitions I always say that they should keep in touch, they have my number and if they are FB people I might say we can be friends on FB. Truth is that I love being able to follow my former kids on FB- see pictures and watch them grow! I even have connected parents to other parents this way. I think we have to keep our personal life separate while we are working with families, but it is a great way to stay in touch.