07/12/2012 12:58 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

High-Tech Business Etiquette: A Professional's Guide to Social Networks

Social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ provide endless opportunities for entrepreneurs and business professionals to connect. Tempting as it may be to friend your boss or contact prospective employers though, many grey areas remain, as well as countless potential career pitfalls. Important to note for social media users: Connecting with colleagues, mentors and possible clients on social networks isn't just about being polite and respectful -- it also requires observing specific unspoken rules of conduct and creating constructive dialogue that provides value to all parties. Here are some essential social networking rules of business etiquette that entrepreneurs and modern professionals would do well to heed:

Making Professional Connections on Social Networks
  • Add a personal note when asking to become friends with strangers on social networks. Explain who you are and why you wish to connect. Realize that some individuals may utilize these networks for personal reasons and could perceive professional outreach as a violation of privacy.
  • Adjust privacy settings so that you have control over who posts on your wall, tags you in photos, and -- via status updates or other methods -- can share unwanted content with colleagues or clients.
  • Use a headshot as a profile photo. To maintain professionalism, avoid using random images, logos, products, or anything besides your actual face.
  • When requesting testimonials from colleagues or partners, only ask for endorsements from people who you've intimately worked with in the past.
  • Under no circumstances should you pitch an idea, product, or job opportunity via someone's public wall or profile.
  • Contacting users out of the blue on social networks with sales pitches is inappropriate. While some users provide professional contact information on their profile, which may be used to contact them, under no circumstance is reaching out via personal addresses contained therein acceptable.

What Content is Appropriate to Share?

  • Posting highly opinionated viewpoints or speaking to hot-button topics (e.g. political or religious subjects) can be detrimental to your relationships and/or career prospects. Think twice before posting negative or controversial status updates, and liking them, which may be perceived as a tacit endorsement. If you don't have anything nice to say, it's best left unsaid.
  • Posting embarrassing, revealing or negative photos is wholly inappropriate. Images will be viewed as representative of your character--and will live forever on the Internet.
  • Avoid posting on social networks unless you have a tight grasp of your privacy settings and are completely comfortable sharing these updates with professional connections.
  • Keep all online postings - including images, text, photos and video - professional and reflective of the same respectful image that you project on the job.

Befriending Your Boss or Co-Workers

  • Prior to requesting or accepting connections from colleagues, think about the material you share -- is it appropriate for colleagues consumption?
  • Before connecting with your boss on social networks, consider if you'd still want to be connected if you ever leave the position.
  • Note that connecting with colleagues and supervisors may expose you or they to information and influences that may make either party uncomfortable - be certain to understand the risk you're taking in doing so.
  • Let professionalism rule: If it's unsafe to say or share at the office, avoid saying or sharing it online.
  • Do not tag coworkers without their permission or in images and videos that may be perceived as unprofessional, inappropriate or controversial.
  • When posting status updates, photos or videos, or interacting online, let professionalism rule: If it's unsafe to say or share at the office, it's not something you should project online.

Managing Photos and Videos

  • Do not tag coworkers without their permission. Likewise, do not tag colleagues in images and videos that may be perceived as unprofessional, inappropriate or controversial, even within private social networks - and, for judgment's sake, always err on the side of extreme caution.
  • Set social networks to send you an alert whenever you are tagged in a photo or video, and check such postings immediately to make sure you are comfortable with the content and context contained within.
  • While individual preference may differ here, save yourself unnecessary trouble and skip posting content from informal work gatherings, i.e. office party photos, entirely. Such settings seldom lend themselves to depictions consistent with one's professional image, and not all may be comfortable with the manner in which they're portrayed in media captured at these events.

What You Should (and Shouldn't) Post

  • Do not post negative, controversial, rude or potentially insulting commentary in online spaces.
  • Do not speak ill of others, or publicly deride competitors -- good sportsmanship reigns.
  • Keep discussions about office politics off all social networks -- even those that you consider private.
  • Do not use social networks to air dirty laundry.
  • Respond respectfully to commentary aimed at you -- or do not respond at all.
  • Promote others more than you promote yourself to avoid self-aggrandizing.
  • Be supportive of others and treat them with the same level of professionalism that you'd ask for yourself.