To Friend or Not to Friend—How Do You Respond? Ethics, Social Media, and Your Clients/Students

Contributed by Diana Abath

Diana Abath is a career employment and human services practitioner and community educator of 15 years from the United States. She is a Life Strategies’ instructor and has taught several courses in the Career Management Professional Program (CMPP).

Some years ago, I received a LinkedIn invite to join a former client’s network and a Facebook “friend” invite from a current student. It was a first for me and I received the invites only minutes apart. Ironically, I was grading the student’s last paper and had just ended sessions with the client two days prior. For some reason I instantly panicked, and, I must admit, was perplexed by my reaction.

Dilemma? Initially, yes. I’d developed great relationships with both people in a professional capacity, so didn’t want to hurt feelings or have either feel rejected. Plus, it was nice to know I’d made a difference in their lives that resulted in the desire to remain connected. However, after moving away from my computer so their invites weren’t glaring into my guilt-ridden psyche, I took a few deep breaths, thinking . . . well, no, it’s not a dilemma. The question wasn’t whether to “friend or not” – It was how best to respond ethically.

Ethics are the principles by which we professionally conduct ourselves. Social media can blur the lines between personal and professional relationships which can result in “grey areas.” It may be helpful to keep the following in mind:

  1. Your Professional Code(s) of E Some professionals adhere to many (e.g., ACA, GCDF, S & Gs, HS-BCP). What’s relayed in yours in terms of social networking and/or relationships with current and former clients/students?
  2. The Policies of Your Organization. Are there clearly written parameters of acceptable conduct concerning social media for employees whether on or off the clock? Dave Fleet, VP of Digital for Edelman PR, Toronto, put together a globally diversified list of social media policies from churches to major corporations with such policies.
  3. The Socializing Agenda. Why are you being invited to a particular site and how personal is its content? Consider what message accepting a FB friend request sends, as opposed to LinkedIn where the focus is on business networking.
  4. Your Own “Friend Cultivation Radar.” Would you actually befriend the particular person in the “real world”? Of course, this isn’t an actual professional term but it is a personal barometer or “vibe” of sorts that people use to determine who they “friend” in their physical lives.

There is much to consider for sure; maybe too much for some. However, not doing so for both professional and personal reasons can also open a “Pandora’s Box” of problems when approached with a social media invite if the nature and context of the relationship aren’t given careful and clear consideration.

So how did I ethically respond to my invites? I kindly thanked both parties, relaying I felt honored. However, I advised that, due to our current or recent professional relationship, and the professional ethics over my field, personal, socializing of any kind would not be possible, but if either ever needed my professional assistance again, I would more than welcome that. Each understood, responding that my honesty was appreciated as I’d always been that way during our engagements.

After years of advising, coaching, and teaching adult clients and students, I still often get invites to connect or “friend” through social media sites. Declining isn’t always appreciated, but since that first incident, I haven’t panicked. I use the steps previously described as my personal ethical decision making model in addition to the following:

  1. First and foremost, I verbally relay to both my clients and students the parameters of our relationship upfront, including social networking.
  2. With the bevy of social media sites available, when invited I check out the site and, if it’s not for me, tactfully decline in a brief, professional, and unapologetic email.
  3. I manage the information I provide on social media sites and monitor my privacy and public settings. There have been problems with some sites making system changes or updates that can affect settings.

I’m also in the process of adapting and developing a social network clause for my Informed Client Consent form and a standalone policy for the online presence of my new practice. This ensures clients know the policy upfront, in writing and allows me to refer them to it when needed.

Ethical decision-making seems like it should be cut and dry, but life can present many gray areas. Ethical decision-making models can provide a systematic process and approach to apply to complex situations and circumstances. Immediate emotional responses could less likely cloud perspective, leading to more thoughtful and confident resolutions.

To learn more about how ethics impact your work and to explore ethical codes and models, and to discuss your ethical practice, join me in Life Strategies’ upcoming two-week course Ethics for Career Practitioners starting March 11, 2015.



American Counseling Association. (2014). 2014 ACA Code of ethics. Retrieved from .

Canadian Standards & Guidelines for Career Development Practitioners. (2011).  Code of ethics. Retrieved from

Center for Credentialing and Education. (2010). Global career development facilitator code of ethics [GCDF]. Retrieved from

Center for Credentialing and Education. (2009). Human services-board certified practitioner [HS-BCP]. Retrieved from

Fleet, D. (2007, October). 57 Social media policy examples and resources. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Kolmes. K. (2010). Social Media Policy. Online publication. Retrieved from

Mikov, L. (2013, February). Being friends with clients on Facebook. [Blog post]. Retrieved from .

Zur, O., & Walker, A. (2015). Online article.  Informed consent & social networking. [Article Section]. Retrieved from .

Zur, O. & Zur, A. (2011). The facebook dilemma: To accept or not to accept? Responding to clients’ “friend requests” on psychotherapists’ social networking sites.  Independent Practitioner, 31(1), pp. 12-17.



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