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Why Can’t We Be Friends? – Employment Counselling and Social Media’s Elastic Effect


More and more often, we are asked in our daily lives to like, friend tag, and link to others, either directly or indirectly. Remaining objective through these personal relationships is a key to achieving success in a professional role, and the elasticity of social media in these relationships is a factor that as career professionals we need to understand and discuss. The question is not why can we not connect, but rather “why can’t we be friends?”  The topic is far too big for a single post, so I am going to discuss some of the more apparent surface points here.  For a more robust discussion on this topic, I will be presenting at the CERIC’s Summer Skills Academy in Toronto on August 20-21, involving in-depth case studies and a live discussion on ethical behaviours and social media.

Social media is a concept that we are seeing in every facet of our lives, and these channels are becoming as common as talking on the telephone. In the counselling role, we see clients asking us to connect with them on social media, and we in turn are highlighting the effects of using such a broad communication channel for their own career development and jobseeking. This sometimes results in our clients asking us to become “friends”. We must however maintain a professional distance, and there are several potential problems maintaining a dual relationship role to be aware of before we add them in to our networks.

Often, when people first hear the term “professional distance”, the perception is that we are to be cold, unemotional, and completely uncaring and uninvolved with those we counsel in their journey. In truth, it is just the opposite – compassion and caring are real emotional supports that we offer as counsellors to build rapport and create a healthy relationship with our clients. Of course, an over-involvement on an emotional level causes us as counsellors to lose our objectivity, as we begin to limit our suggestions based on the relationship that we have created. Professional distance and professional boundaries can be flexible and elastic while still ensuring competent and appropriate practice; however the boundaries must be clearly established and maintained throughout this “dual relationship” when using social media.

When I am counselling clients, often I am expanding on the use of LinkedIn. A professional network of over 180 million people, there are several connections that can highlight where to find a decision-maker for hiring – my personal network is among the 10 largest in Canada with almost 30,000 first degree connections. When I am facilitating a course on using LinkedIn, I am quick to let clients know that they can reach out to me on LinkedIn and we can connect, however we will only be talking of using LinkedIn and I will not be counselling them.  I can give them tips and hints to use the channel, however if they are approaching me with questions on their jobseeking activities, I will be directing them back to their own counsellor. I am here as a professional, not a confidante, and although the relationship can be elastic in terms of stretching the relationship boundary we have, it cannot interfere with their own counsellor and client relationship.

The use of social media has transformed our definition of relationships and has also, in my opinion, greatly increased the number of relationships that we can maintain due to the type of relationship boundaries that are created. In the study of primatology (research on primates such as chimps, gorillas, etc.) it was found that they have a relationship base of about 50 others due to the size of their frontal neo cortex. Primates need to maintain a social distance by grooming, personal interactions and other social activities – here is a link if you want to read more about Dunbar’s Number.  Humans are no different; however the size of our frontal neo cortex allows us to maintain 150 – 200 people in our personal circle.  Details such as names, facts, relationships, siblings, experiences and others are held and managed in our neo cortex, and we can only do so much with a container that big. Social media lets us create the relationships on a much more socially surface level, and the numbers are much greater than 200. This is due to the technological advantage social media provides us to store much of that personal data in the history of our conversations in the channel.

This then leads us to the fact that creating and maintaining a relationship in social media channels as counsellors can be done but, just as in real life, we have to ensure we draw boundaries at the beginning and then sustain them throughout our communications. These technologies allow us to maintain the specifics of a relationship, so we can have a larger network online than in real life.  Social media interactions are absolutely no different than the real-world interactions we have, it is that the line becomes blurred for many of us using social media because it is seen as an impersonal, surface communication.  We would not have a meal with clients, we would not go out for a cup of coffee with them after hours, and we would not meet them for a social engagement either.  There is a line we do not cross in real life – we also do not cross it in social media.

Facebook is a large player in the social media world, and it has a certain atmosphere in the relationships it creates. They are fun, frivolous, light and breezy; it is like a cocktail party or the bar after work. These are places we would never engage with clients unless it was a chance meeting that was coincidental, so this is not an appropriate place for us to engage with clients. The terms that Facebook uses are “friend” and “like” – they are both social definitions that are not acceptable for the counselling relationship.   There are tools that Facebook has for jobseekers, such as Dr. J.P. Hatala’s My Job Cards which uses the social power of Facebook to act like a jobfinding club for Facebook; a great tool, but one for clients to use individually.

LinkedIn is a professional networking site, and is created with the focus of connecting professionals. There are moderated groups to discuss topics of interest, job advertisements, access to create and share portfolios, and more.  This site is created with a specific relationship atmosphere, and if maintained can be used to stretch the counselling relationship, creating the elasticity I mentioned earlier. However the caution is to treat the relationship no different than if the client were in your office. Certain phrases, verbiage and inferences of communication must be upheld and, again, professional boundaries are a key for continued success.

When you are using these channels, even if not connected to clients, there is also a need to sanitize all your interactions. The term “troll” has been coined on the Internet, and is a term for someone that just looks to cause chaos and havoc, “flaming” posts with destructive comments. My standard advice to clients and practitioners – DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. Remember that we maintain a standard of self-disclosure with clients in the office, but what happens in Vegas stays on Facebook. Be aware of revealing too much personal information in any channel, just in case someone in the audience may be a client someday and realize that WAS you in that picture.

Sometimes, a dual relationship (where we interact outside the agency with a client) happens without being intended or created directly, many times in smaller or rural communities. You find you attend the same church, you belong to the same community organization, or you are on the same PTA group.  These types of interactions are unethical to maintain the counselling relationship within, and need to be addressed with your supervisor or the client can be asked to be assigned to another counsellor. Having a relationship with a client and then meeting with them on social media channels is different; however the exact same amount of caution and professionalism must be maintained as in the office setting.

Realize that you can interact on a social media channel such as LinkedIn – which is like an online office setting – although you are treating the client just as if they are in front of you within the office. There is not an ability to be friends in the office; there is no ability to be friends online. The question of “why can’t we be friends?” really has an embarrassingly simple answer – because then I cannot be your counsellor.


Chris Kulbaba
A Career Development Practitioner who employs a constructivist approach using a Protean Career model. A specialist using social media for branding and career development, coupled with a values based approach to communications. Always open to network and connect, please feel free to approach at any time for a discussion around career topics of any type.

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1 Comment

  1. July 20, 2013, 12:09 pm   / 

    I always cringe when someone in my professional life manages to dig up my personal Facebook account, and tries to add me. I’ve had the account since my early 20s and I think most of us in that age range probably had some pretty ridiculous photos of them taken… and I’m no exception to that. Sometimes I think I should just clean up/delete those photos, but sometimes I enjoy looking back and remembering the “good ol days”. That was always the cool thing about Facebook to me… it’s like this online documentation of who you were and what has happened over the years.

    That’s why it is important to be conscious of how you use these social tools on a professional basis. Facebook really is mostly a gathering of family and friends… Twitter is the cocktail party where anyone can mingle and converse… and LinkedIn is like an online office environment. Of course the lines can easily be blurred, depending on how you choose to use each tool… it’s just like how the lines can be blurred in real life.

    My last job was at a bank, and they would often take the top performers on trips to celebrate their success. On a trip to Jamaica, the daughter of of one of the managers (who also worked there) got a little too drunk, and jumped up on the table and started to dance… the same table where the CEO and call center manager was sitting.

    “what happens in Vegas stays on Facebook”… but not always. That’s why it’s important to be aware of how your personal and professional lives can collide on social media, and how that could affect your business or career in the future. This is true in real life, and online.

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