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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?”

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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?”

Me, my self, and I

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.

Workplace conflicts have 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.

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.”

Sigal Barsade, a Wharton management professor, 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.”

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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