manager is scaring her employees with sad Facebook posts

A reader writes:

I own a small business and one of my managers is Facebook friends with me and all her staff members. She is going through a divorce and has a young child, which is undoubtedly difficult, but she hides personal issues very well on the job (which has a strong customer service aspect). In fact, she’s fun and bubbly to be around.

However, at least three of her employees have brought up with me how worried they are about her because of some of her Facebook updates, which can be borderline suicidal. Interspersed with these are normal posts, cute pictures of the kid, and so on. I have dismissed the outbursts as normal venting, probably related to the divorce.

I have tried to reassure her staff that I have other Facebook friends who reach out in this way (via status updates) with somewhat depressive thoughts in order to get a nice boost from many people at once in the comments. I want to stop the gossiping and to try to separate these posts of hers from how they view her as a manager. Of course, I don’t really know why she feels compelled to post these things to hundreds of people, and if there’s a serious problem there or not, but I’m struggling with whether or not I should say anything. I definitely feel uncomfortable commenting on her posts with reassurances like “You are NOT a failure!” though maybe that is what she’s looking for.

Should I tell her that her employees are disturbed by her posts? If so, do I just leave it at that and let it be her decision how she comes across to them? I don’t like the idea that I should “boss” her private life, and Facebook seems private…or is it?

Yep, it’s your business, just as it would be your business if she were interacting with her employees in an alarming way at a social event over the weekend. Her relationship with her employees is your business, whether it’s on-the-clock or off.

But at the same time that you need to help her set more appropriate boundaries, it’s also a difficult situation that requires compassion. I’d sit down with her somewhere private and have the following conversation:

1. First, ask if she’s doing okay. It’s fine to say that you’ve been worried about her because some of her Facebook posts. Ask how she is. Then listen. Maybe she’ll tell you in a convincing way that she’s just blowing off steam and none of that should be taken seriously. Or maybe she’ll tell you that she’s having a really hard time. If the latter, express compassion. Encourage her to talk to a therapist. (Since you’re a small business, I’m assuming you don’t have an EAP, but if you do, this is what they’re there to help with.) See if she wants time off. And if she says anything that gives you the sense she’s a danger to herself, you should quickly seek guidance from a qualified mental health professional on how to proceed. (If that happens, then ignore the rest of this post; at that point, let advice from the professional take over.)

2. Assuming that you don’t get the sense that you need to switch into professional help mode, then you move to the next part of the conversation: You have to tell her about the impact it’s having on her staff — that several of them have told you they’re worried about her and it’s impacting the dynamic between them. Tell her that you’re sure she didn’t even think about the fact that employees would be seeing those posts and having their relationship with her impacted, and so you want to make her cognizant of it. She has a lot of options here: She can can customize her settings so that employees don’t see certain posts, or any of them, or she can stop posting things that are inappropriate for them to see, or she can de-friend them, for that matter (although that might just cause further alarm at this point). But she does need to keep her relationship with them professional, and that includes what she posts to them on Facebook.

You should be compassionate when you talk to her about this; your tone should be that you’re not chastising her but just bringing something to her attention that she probably hadn’t realized.

If you’re thinking, “But if she wants to share her personal life with her employees, isn’t that her call to make, even if I find it weird?” the answer is no. The dynamic she creates with her employees is very much your business. Part of being a manager is establishing appropriate professional boundaries with the people you manage. You don’t want employees afraid to raise an important, time-sensitive issue with her because she sounded depressed on Facebook last night, or feeling like they need to walk on eggshells around her.

This doesn’t mean that people can’t be human. But it’s one thing for a manager to say, “Hey, I want you guys to know there’s a medical situation in my family right now that may be distracting me for a while.” That’s reasonable. It’s entirely different for a manager to cry on employees’ shoulders, or have emotional outbursts around them, or use them as a substitute for family and friends. There’s got to be some distance, for everyone’s sake.

Talk to her, be compassionate, see how she’s doing, and then help her recognize and set more appropriate boundaries. And it would be nice to check back in with her from time to time after this, to see how she’s doing.

What do others think?

Want to read an update to this post? The reader’s update several months later is here.

{ 13 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey*

    It’s also highly appropriate to talk about fmla or possibly an ADA accommodation if she mentions serious mental health conditions

  2. SME*

    I think it’s a terrible idea to mix Facebook with current co-workers, period final, the end. It should be on the giant “DO NOT DO THIS” list for people in the workplace. There is never an up side, and all too many times (like this example) a huge down side. This manager needs to be made (compassionately) aware that she is endangering her professional relationships by allowing this overlap.

  3. Stephen*

    This is why I don’t friend any of my direct reports :)

    But I agree with AAM that it would be best to have a discussion and see if there is a serious issue and if not, discuss the proper boundaries for managers.

  4. Anonymous*

    While your coworkers are showing concern over certain behavior, there are employees in the workplace who use this power negatively. For example, say Josey called out sick: *coughcough* “I don’t feel so well today, Jane. I need to stay in bed.” Then, the coworkers go online in a little bit to see Josey’s latest status update: “Such a beautiful day, didn’t think it was winter! Out reading my book and having a picnic lunch in Central Park!” Now tell me there aren’t any people in this world who wouldn’t see that and immediately take it to the manager.

    And in general, it’s best to leave a few things as mysteries when it comes to your coworkers.

  5. Nate*

    Since she has “publicly disclosed” her feelings as of present and made them aware to you, I think (if you care about her professional life) that you should address her candidly about it in private.

    I think the most critical thing I would emphasize once you do address it to her is *who* is viewing her status updates and *what* they may conclude from it. She may simply have forgotten that so many people now have access to those posts. If you friend several dozen people, it can be difficult to remember exactly who you friend, especially if you don’t check your friend list often.

  6. FrauTech*

    I could be wrong, but I’d be a little suspicious about the employees that are bringing this up to complain about it. I mean, why didn’t they go to her in the first place? Why are they going to you about it? Just seems like maybe they are trying to discredit her or something (she is their boss afterall) or just stirring up gossip with you. There’s not too many cases where one should go to one’s boss’s boss, and in this case if they were truely concerned I’d think they’d be telling you about how they talked to her first and weren’t satisfied with her response.

  7. MillenniMedia*

    Everyone is focusing on the Facebook issue here – and don’t get me wrong, there is an issue – but I would urge the OP to handle this from the *human* perspective first. Yes, I agree that the manager has gone way too far in integrating her personal and professional lives, but the fact is that even the OP admits that these posts have occasionally been “borderline suicidal.”

    As someone who has been deeply affected by the effects of depression and suicide, I really hope that the OP will take her aside and show some compassion and real concern for this woman’s well being and safety. Hopefully this is just venting, but there’s also a very real possibility that it’s not. These employees aren’t whining about issues she’s causing in the workplace….they have a gut suspicion that something is terribly wrong in her personal life and are concerned for her safety. If she’s posting these things in a public online forum, she knows full well that the world can see her words, and could be using it to cry for help.

    I am not in any way suggesting that you should be her savior. I would suggest that you have a conversation in which you express your concern for her well being. Because you are her employer, you can certainly suggest taking leave or offering a flexible schedule that may help her to juggle the life changes she is dealing with. I would however also be prepared to offer a measure of emotional support and potentially a resource such as 1-800-SUICIDE. You may go into the conversation thinking it will be all business, but you do not know how she will react if she is feeling especially fragile or vulnerable. I cannot stress enough that her *life* is far more important than any managerial missteps. Unfortunately this whole situation puts you in an unbelievably uncomfortable position, but if this turns out to be more then “venting” you will be forever grateful that you were a compassionate person first and her employer second.

  8. Anonymous*

    Hi, I wrote the letter. This manager is already taking some time off soon, that’s in the works. She and I have talked about her personal life briefly over the last few months (that’s how I know about the divorce in the first place) and she seems relatively grounded and sane about it. In person, her attitude is frustrated and annoyed about her ex much more than sad or depressed. The Facebook posts have always been much more intense than she is in person about the situation. That’s what makes it so awkward, because I feel like I shouldn’t be seeing them, much less discussing them with her, but there they are for everyone to see.

    Whether or not we should all be Facebook friends isn’t the question, we are, and it’s just that kind of environment (not corporate at all). Even at my extremely corporate Fortune 500 job, everyone was Facebook friends too. That’s why I thought this might be a dilemma that other managers have encountered.

    I agree with the people who questioned the other employee’s motives for bringing this up in front of me. I did get a feeling like they were just wanting to gossip (or worse, discredit her).

    I will discuss it with her before she leaves, and I’ll report back how it goes. You can probably tell from my letter I wanted to hear “ignore it and hope it goes away” but I won’t. Thanks for all the feedback!

  9. Julie*

    If her FB posts are “much more intense than she is in person about the situation,” she might be Facebooking under the influence. Yet another concern to be aware of.

  10. Matt*

    Or… Maybe she is putting on a face at work, and what she is posting is what she is really feeling… And if that is the case, it might not be a pretty ending. Lots of people post stuff on Facebook where they have this weird idea that they can say what they really feel with no repercussion. Maybe she really feels as really bad as her post indicate but she was raised not to let her emotions and feelings show. That would jibe with the whole “she hides personal issues very well on the job” from the original post and with the statement “she seems relatively grounded and sane” comment. Remember, most people who actually succeed at suicide look that way, but when you take a closer look, you can see it being forced. If she was already battling depression, and most who are will hide it because of the stigma involved, the divorce and the “time off” may be just the trigger. Never just blow off comments like this. If your getting a gut check and others are too, you may be picking up sub-conscience clues and she may be in more danger than you are aware.

    Dang, I hate being the downer post.

  11. nyxalinth*

    I’m very late to this one, but I have to say that the only reason I ever opened a Facebook page was after reading how employers were asking if you had one in interviews, and not believing candidates if they said no. I really don’t bother much with it, and I save all the deep personal stuff for Livejournal for these very reasons.

    I never put in any info there that can tie it to me, either, and all ‘job gripes’ are in friends-locked posts, and I don’t friend people from work. I never understand why people don’t get this.

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