Available All the Time: Etiquette for the Social Networking Age

After a long day at the office, imagine logging onto Facebook to see what your friends have been up to, only to have your boss or colleague message you about an urgent work matter. Aside from the fact that you are officially off duty, is it appropriate for your co-worker to reach out to you through a social networking forum? Was it wise to accept a colleague or higher-up as a “friend” to begin with? And — perhaps more importantly — in this day and age, when people are seemingly available around the clock because of smartphones and our endless appetite for all things online, is anyone ever really “off duty?”

As Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour Blackberry access blur the lines between business and personal lives, managers and employees are struggling to develop new social norms to guide them through the ongoing evolution of communications technology. Wharton faculty and other experts say the process of creating rules to cope with the ever-expanding reach of modern communications has just begun, but will be shaped largely by individuals and organizations, not top-down decrees from a digital Emily Post. Generational differences in the approach to openness on the Internet will also be a factor in coming to common understandings of how and when it is appropriate to contact colleagues, superiors or clients.

“There are huge etiquette issues around the new social media, especially the interactive type,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “What if your boss friends you on Facebook? That’s a dilemma. How do you not accept that friend? What if you really are friends?”

According to Rothbard, new communications technology is eroding the boundaries between home and office, which creates a “double-edged sword” for companies. “On the one hand, it enables flexibility. In some ways, it makes you more effective. But it can also lead to a lot of burnout. In the long term, it may lead to conflict about how you feel towards your other life roles and your ability to be fully present in any one domain.”

For example, a Blackberry can allow parents to attend their children’s soccer games while remaining in contact with colleagues at the office in case an emergency comes up. But, she adds, “you have your Blackberry at your kid’s soccer game. That’s another … line you may be crossing.”

The explosion in the popularity of Facebook has made the site a key battleground in the struggle to establish consensus on correct social networking behavior. Rothbard notes that initially, many businesspeople attempted to use LinkedIn for business contacts, reserving Facebook for more personal interactions. Gradually, however, professional colleagues, clients and supervisors have now become “friends.”

Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics Andrea Matwyshyn had intended to keep her Facebook page strictly personal, but was forced to open it up when colleagues in Europe chose to use Facebook as a means for organizing a conference. Through that initial group of professional friends, other business contacts began to reach out to Matwyshyn on Facebook. “I felt social pressure to build out my social network, because at that point I had about three friends,” she says. “That’s how Facebook gets you.”

Multiple ‘Selves’

For most people who use Facebook and other social networking sites, says Wharton marketing professor Patricia Williams, “there is an understanding of the multiple roles we play. There is the self we are for our friends, a self for our family [and] a professional self. What’s interesting is the degree to which we are comfortable playing all of those ‘selves’ at one time.” And that is something that people are not used to doing. Before the advent of such networks, it was unusual for someone to display a persona that would seem familiar to friends, coworkers and family — all at the same time.

“I’ve heard people say that Facebook is for personal friends and LinkedIn is for professional contacts,” Williams notes. “But many of my Facebook friends are my colleagues — people who work just down the hall — and I don’t have a problem with that. I do, however, have some discomfort being ‘Facebook friends’ with my students, because it gives them access to my personal self that’s not normally available to them.”

At the same time, Williams’ students, especially the undergraduates, have not yet developed a sense of their professional self. Consequently, she believes, they may be less cautious about the image they project on social networks, even when they may be visible to bosses, clients — or teachers.

Williams and a colleague, Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed II, are conducting research that examines the conflict between individuals’ various identities, “such as when my role as a professional comes into conflict with my role as a mother,” Williams says. In mixing up personal and professional roles, people can get themselves into embarrassing situations. “I think some people are good, and some people are not so good, at finding a balance in these roles” and keeping information that would be perceived as too personal out of a professional context.

Workplace conflicts have also come up at companies where managers have limited or banned Facebook for being a distraction and monitor employees’ personal pages for images or comments that might reflect poorly on the business. At the same time, Matwynshyn says some companies require employees to maintain blogs or to Twitter as a way to market the firm. Microsoft, she notes, encourages social networking on the job. “It all depends on how people use the social media. For some people, Twitter feeds can be a great business outreach mechanism, and so posting items to Twitter may be considered by some companies or individuals to be part of their job.” Social networking can help personalize or humanize a business culture, and many companies have their own Facebook page, she adds.

Generational Approaches

Communications researchers, and the companies that look to them for advice, have a lot to learn about how or if employers should control or encourage their employees’ use of social networks, according to Williams. Certainly, employees who are talking about their workplace on Facebook could be considered to be “exposing the brand,” which can be good or bad, depending on what aspect of the brand is being exposed. “So, the question is whether that is helpful or harmful to the workplace or the brand.”

Monica McGrath, a Wharton adjunct management professor, says that some of the misunderstanding about social networking is generational. Older workers and managers may have a Facebook page, but it is not essential to them. Younger workers now entering the corporate world rely heavily on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to communicate. “Right now, there is tension between those two generational approaches,” notes McGrath.

While networking etiquette is in flux, standards will develop, she predicts. Typically, business norms evolve through official policy disseminated by organizations and by “reality” that bubbles up from the organization’s grassroots. “The question is: How accessible do you want to be? [Today,] young people want to be very accessible, and in an international corporation you are expected to be available [around the clock]. Time zones mean nothing. The norms will continue to develop based upon generational leadership.”

While the norms are in transition, McGrath says she does not think that corporations will try to create standards through official policies. “It really depends on the corporate context or even the individual context. If you are working on an important project and a number of people depend on your input, you would [want to] be much more available than if you have finished the project and are on vacation. The etiquette of that is more dependent on the individual and his or her priorities.”

McGrath, who is also human resources consultant, says she — like most entrepreneurs — is typically available around the clock.  But “as long as nothing is perking,” she turns off her phone. “People need to determine what makes sense. If the boss is up at midnight sending e-mail, some people are okay with that, but other people are not. If you have family priorities that are different than [those of] the boss, you have to work that out.”

Business consultant Terri Thompson, founder of Etiquette in Action in Paris, Kentucky, says the same idea applies to managing the scope of social networks. Cautious friending is one way to keep a Facebook page from becoming a business liability, she adds. “It’s not that impressive to have 500 friends on Facebook or LinkedIn whom you don’t know, and you don’t know what they might say.”

Blackberrys in Meetings

Sigal Barsade, a Wharton management professor, says the uncertainty over access etiquette is the result of fundamental changes that computer-mediated technologies have made to basic human communication. Much of the confusion is due to the inability to have a reciprocal conversation in the context of, say, Twitter or Facebook postings. “So it’s hard to cue in exactly as to what the etiquette should be at the moment, because it’s sequential. The brevity and lack of richness of these computer-mediated technologies make it harder to behave in ways that people are used to.”  

She says there are likely to be two major paths to developing etiquette for today’s new forms of communication. One is through the introduction of new people into an organization who bring with them norms that gradually become accepted. For example, she recalls a student who had worked at an investment bank in New York and transferred to an office in the Midwest. During a one-on-one meeting with a manager, the newcomer made the mistake of answering his Blackberry. The manger scolded the transplant, who was baffled because his former manager in New York had always answered his Blackberry during meetings. For now, Barsade says, the Midwest customs would prevail in that setting, but as others from outside organizations enter, the office’s subculture is likely to change.

The other way that etiquette around new communication devices is likely to evolve is through social information within the organization. “People influence each other,” she says. The most important determinants of socialization in any organization are managerial role models. Workers watch top managers and their immediate supervisors to learn what is accepted and, better yet, rewarded in the organization. This is more powerful than corporate edicts issued by the human resources department, and even stronger when senior leaders and operational managers are in sync. “If this is something senior management cares about, it will be a top-down process, which can be more systematic and effective than a bottom-up process,” she notes.

Given that power, wouldn’t managers demand all-access, all the time? Not necessarily, says Barsade: “Senior management is increasingly recognizing the downside to constant availability, and may well need to [rein] employees in from over-using the technology. This can be seen in firms that have days, or times of day, that employees are told not to use computer-mediated technology. Also, senior management would have to manage being [on the receiving end] of that much access, which could be a problem in its own right.”

Communication ‘Pecking Order’

According to Thompson, there is a general “pecking order” in the business community when it comes to responding to different forms of communication. E-mail should be answered within 24 hours and a telephone call returned even sooner. Social networking sites take the lowest priority. The order makes sense because a phone call or e-mail seeks specific information from the one individual being contacted. Social networks come last because, she notes, they are a wide-open forum where communications is less targeted at one individual.

Then there is the question of the professional colleague on Facebook who, while eagerly awaiting your response to a work-related deliverable, notices that you have been busy updating your Facebook page with social news. Is it proper to call someone out for such an apparent dereliction of duty? Again, it all boils down to context, says Williams. “I can imagine being in a situation where maybe I need to take a break and blow off steam by saying something on Facebook.”

Rothbard notes that Facebook itself is not likely to take a role in establishing norms to sort out the conflicts between business and personal friending. “I don’t know if Facebook wants to be Emily Post,” she says. Social networking sites might emphasize options that allow users or organizations to tailor their own norms for dealing with problems that can crop up when mixing business and personal communications, she suggests.

Matwyshyn does not expect another site to evolve as a replacement for the highly personal space that once defined Facebook before it was infiltrated by business and professional users. “If you have built up 500 Facebook friends, that’s a sunk cost,” she says. “If you stop using it, you’re cutting off 500 connections and the switching costs are high. So, there’s a stickiness in the use of the application.”

Meanwhile, the root of many of the awkward situations that arise around the use of Facebook and other social networking sites is giving out too much information, faculty emphasize. Rothbard says that in face-to-face communications, people are much more careful about the volume and nature of the information they disclose. On the Internet, however, “there is a lot of lack of awareness — or obliviousness — about who is receiving this information.” Someone using Twitter, for example, may think that only 20 people will read their message; meanwhile, millions of unknown people may stumble upon the information. Matwyshyn agrees that users of social networking sites must be more cognizant of the viral nature of their posts, especially in any context where work and private life are intertwined. “They have to realize there are potential negative consequences that can flow from coworkers knowing more about you than is prudent.”

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