A 33-year-old wholesale buyer was hesitant when her male manager wanted to connect on social media. She wasn’t sure that she wanted him to see posted photos of her out with friends, dressed in clothes she wouldn’t wear at the office.
“Honestly, I thought it was creepy, even though I think he was just trying to be friendly,” she said.
Connecting with colleagues on social media is a conundrum for employees across a spectrum of industries, where decisions about digital etiquette come with worry about exposing too much — or too little — to co-workers, bosses, and subordinates. The blurring of work boundaries through online social connections is the subject of a new research paper co-authored by Nancy Rothbard, management professor and deputy dean at Wharton.
“There’s a tension that people have between this exhortation to bring your whole self to work, to connect, to be a part of things, but also to keep a separation between your personal and your professional life,” she said. “We used to have the question, ‘Do I go for informal drinks after work?’ This is a different kind of online version of that, an online dilemma.”
Rothbard spoke with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about the paper, “OMG! My Boss Just Friended Me: How Evaluations of Colleagues’ Disclosure, Gender, and Rank Shape Personal/Professional Boundary Blurring Online.” Co-authors are Lakshmi Ramarajan, business administration professor at Harvard Business School, Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, management professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, and Serenity S. Lee, Wharton doctoral candidate.
“People in general were leery of connecting with their bosses. They were more uncomfortable with a boss than with a peer.”
The scholars conducted both quantitative and qualitative research to determine how workers decide to befriend colleagues. The perceived warmth and competence of co-workers were core factors in whether people sent or accepted friend requests, but gender and rank were just as important.
Four key findings from the paper are:
- Employees are more likely to connect online with colleagues who disclose more personal information, which conveys a greater sense of warmth.
- Employees are more likely to connect online with peers and less likely to connect with managers out of concerns about career and reputational risks.
- Employees are more likely to connect with female bosses who disclose more, reinforcing existing gender stereotypes, and less likely to connect with female bosses who disclose less, which contradicts a gender stereotype.
- Employees are less likely to connect with male bosses regardless of the amount of self-disclosure by the male boss.
“People in general were leery of connecting with their bosses. They were more uncomfortable with a boss than with a peer,” Rothbard said. “They were also somewhat uncomfortable connecting with subordinates, so that hierarchical distinction was a bright line that people worried about crossing, although there was more concern with connecting with a boss.”
Rothbard said the findings about female bosses reveal quite a bit about how women are perceived in the workplace. Female bosses may be uniquely positioned to use self-disclosure to break through rank barriers and pull teams closer together, but they also risk being viewed as a friend rather than a strict manager. Meanwhile, female bosses who are less personable are thought to be cold and uncaring.
“Our work suggests one way in which gender discrimination and network inequalities may persist on online social networks,” the authors wrote in the paper, urging more study into the effect of gender and rank on boundary management.
Seeing Beyond ‘Virtual Sight Lines’
Along with quantitative analyses, the study is filled with anecdotes from participants who shared their feelings about connecting with peers and managers online. Some participants, like the woman who didn’t want her boss to see pictures of her out with friends, described their reluctance to connect, particularly with managers who seemed to be spying on them. “It was nice to feel like they wanted to get to know me more,” a 34-year-old male digital operations manager told the scholars, “but at the same time, it was my boss, who had power over my career.”
“You have to be really careful about disclosing some things so that you’re seen as more human and relatable, but perhaps not disclosing things that are TMI.”
Others had little reservation about connecting online with colleagues, especially those with whom they already had a good relationship with at work. “I did accept the request because we are becoming friends, and I like seeing pictures of her children,” a 49-year-old female farm manager said of a subordinate. Another participant described a male peer, who is a new father, as friendly, sweet, and talkative. “His wife just had a baby, and he’s the happiest guy in the world right now,” the colleague said. “He posts a lot of baby and wife photos on Facebook, all very cute and charming. And he’s open about how it is living with a baby — lack of sleep, etc., but in a funny way.”
Rothbard said the results show a “virtuous cycle” that can emerge when people share personal information that humanizes them and breaks down boundaries — a benefit that boosts collaboration. But that benefit comes with a caution, she said.
“What you’re disclosing on that site can have implications for [the employer’s] view of you because it’s unfiltered and they don’t have context to put it in. It’s not tailored content that you might change in terms of how you express yourself depending on who you’re talking with,” she said. “You have to be really careful about disclosing some things so that you’re seen as more human and relatable, but perhaps not disclosing things that are TMI (too much information).”
The professor also called on companies to establish a culture of respect throughout the organizational layers. Learning not to judge others or make assumptions based on appearances is even more critical in the era of remote work, she said. A blurred video background doesn’t imply that an employee is working in a messy home, and a lack of personal posts on Facebook doesn’t mean an employee is cold.
“We have to be aware that these virtual sight lines we have into people’s private lives, which have been really enhanced in terms of social media and the technological connection we have with remote work, have really changed these things tremendously,” Rothbard said.