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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do—When To End Professional Relationships

Posted by Elaine Varelas  May 7, 2012 09:00 AM

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By, Elaine Varelas

Nobody likes a break-up. They can be painful, messy, and emotional. Yet, ending a relationship isn’t always such a bad thing. Once it is over, we often realize in retrospect, that break-ups can be liberating, empowering, and even peaceful. Then why do so many of us have a hard time saying sayonara to our professional relationships? It isn’t easy to break up in the digital age, especially when it is such a breeze to stay connected.

We are intrinsically connected with virtually everyone we’ve ever met via cyberspace. We have online relationships with friends, family, colleagues—past and present—former classmates, clients, vendors, even our chiropractors, vets, and dentists!

In the past, if a colleague took a job at another company, you might run into her at a conference, but wouldn’t see her on a daily basis. Now, even if we don’t see people often, they can pop up on our computer or smartphone screens with regularity. When our relationships change in “real life”—a colleague leaves, you switch vendors, lose a client, or change dentists—they don’t automatically disappear online. You need to make a conscious decision about if and how you will maintain that relationship on the Internet. Do you continue to stay connected or disengage? What if that colleague now works for a competitor? What if the client is working with your rival? What if the vendor is now a sheep farmer in Scotland? What if your chiropractor provides hourly updates about the most mundane details of his life?

The other issue we face is that we live in a culture of “More! More! More!” In fact, many people judge themselves and others by how many friends they have on Facebook, how many connections they’ve made on LinkedIn, and how many followers they’ve built on Twitter and blogs. We’re programed to believe that having more connections implies success and increased business prowess. Many of us don’t see the advantages of ending professional relationships, especially online. What is the harm of having too many connections? Why bother ending them?

We can’t be connected to everyone in the world—and why would we want to be? Relationships take time, and in this 24/7 business reality, our time is a precious commodity. We’re making an investment every time we check in online to read posts and comment on items from people in our network. Some of us don’t have that time and so we, in turn, are neglecting our relationships. But our professional connections are extremely valuable. In some cases, when colleagues become competitors or a contact moves light years out of your business orbit, it may make sense to let them go.

You should be regularly taking stock of your online relationships. Some may have changed since you first connected. You also need to give yourself permission to be selective and end relationships. It is okay to go against the trend of more is better. What do you want out of your relationships? What do they mean to you? Identify those people with whom you are actively engaged in a positive professional relationship. The others? If you like these people on a personal level and want to keep in touch, by all means do. Otherwise, hit delete.

You’ve weeded through your online contacts and are ready to disconnect, but how do you do it? Should you make a stealth maneuver and unfriend your colleagues under the cover of darkness? Do you need to call a meeting to give people your reasons for termination? In most cases, you don’t need to give notice. There may be some instances when you want to contact people by phone or email and give an explanation as a professional courtesy. For example, “Now that we work for competing companies, it’s probably best if you don’t follow me on Twitter anymore.” For most relationships, however, you can just end it.

That, of course, begs the question, how do I physically end relationships online? On LinkedIn, click on the “Contacts” tab and then hit “Remove Connections” in the upper right hand column. If you want to “unfriend” someone on Facebook, go to that person’s profile page, hover over the “Friends” box at the top of their profile and click “Unfriend.” Blocking a follower on Twitter is also a cinch. Just log onto your Twitter account, go to the profile page of the person you want to block, click the “person” icon, and then select “block.”

Now that you know how to end your online relationships, try it! You may be surprised at how easy it is and how great you’ll feel! Despite our obsession with having more friends, followers and connections than everyone else, it can be a drain on your time and can even hurt the business relationships you value most. Not only can breaking up be good for you, but it isn’t so hard to do after all!

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.