Editor's note: Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.
Furtive Facebooker (FF): Recently, my department head and her boss sent me friend requests on Facebook. (I don't socialize with either of them.) Later, my boss' boss wanted to know why I didn't "friend" him and sent me a new request. I have the feeling they just want to see what I am up to on Facebook. I don't want them snooping into my personal life. What should I do?
LinkedIn Lurker (LL): Every recruiter I talk to sends me a LinkedIn request. If I don't accept, I'm being rude to the recruiters and risk falling off their list. If I accept, that's visible to my current colleagues via LinkedIn's weekly activity emails. What's the right thing to do? I've accepted a few connections that seem likely to go somewhere. I politely decline others, and I'm honest about why.
Miller: The online networking paradox: It broadens your world -- and dumps you in a small town where, if you're not careful, everyone knows who you had lunch with and what you ate.
Washington employment lawyer Tracy Gonos, with Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, P.C., notes that online privacy in the workplace is fairly new territory -- and employers will claim as much turf as they can until courts or legislatures draw boundaries. For example, some employers are reportedly demanding interviewees' Facebook passwords or making them give "tours" of their Facebook pages.
In general, workers should:
1. Be paranoid. Anything you post or tweet can be used against you by your employer. Act as though everything you do on company equipment is being tracked.
2. Master privacy controls. Of course, you can always decline requests. But high fences make suspicious neighbors, as FF has discovered. Meanwhile, LL's honest demurrals could mean lost opportunities.
To FF: For my conscience's sake, let's assume you never use Facebook on company time or equipment, and you're just concerned about managers using irrelevant personal information against you. So: Accept their requests -- then tweak your privacy settings to block them from seeing your posts.
To LL: If you temporarily restrict your "Who can see your connections" setting to "Only you," you can hobnob with headhunters without tipping off your colleagues. LinkedIn suggests turning off your activity updates as well. Also, LinkedIn communications rep Krista Canfield suggests conducting your job search on LinkedIn through private messages to trusted individuals.
3. Expect leaks. As in a small town, it pays to remember who is cousins with whom or who goes to the same church. If you and your boss share mutual connections, you risk getting busted, even with tight privacy controls. Best not say anything online that could get you fired if overheard or read over your shoulder.
Here are some tips to help you limit who sees your information on Facebook and LinkedIn. Remember, none of these techniques is 100 percent leakproof. Your best bet is to avoid posting anything that could harm your professional reputation.
Facebook, pre-Timeline format:
Click the arrow beside "Home" and select "Privacy Settings." Under "Control Your Default Privacy," select "Custom." In the box under "Hide This From," enter the name of anyone you want to block from seeing your updates.
Facebook, Timeline format:
You should set your Default Privacy preference as above, if you haven't already. That way, you won't have to double-check every new post, and any sharing you do through tools or applications (such as HootSuite) should be subject to the same privacy rules.
At the bottom of the Privacy Settings page: "Limit the Audience for Past Posts" to hide past discretions from public view -- but bear in mind that all your friends can still browse them.
To see what others see on your page, click the gear icon under your cover photo and select "View as ..." Type in a friend's name (such as your boss's) to see if anything incriminating is visible to that friend. If so, delete or customize the incriminating posts.
After you post something, you can click the icon appearing immediately after it to verify or to change its visibility to others.
With both pre- and post-Timeline Facebook, you can always delete your posts after the fact. But you can't make people un-see anything they've already spotted. And on the Internet, nothing is gone forever.
Under your name at the top of the page, click "Settings." On the bottom half of the page, you'll see links to "Turn on/off your activity broadcasts" and "Select who can see your connections," among others.
For even more tips on job hunting under the radar, go to help.linkedin.com and enter "Privately looking for a job" in the search box.
• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.