Eager to hear the results before they are officially published, I asked professor Nancy Rothbard, who worked on the study with researchers Justin Berg and Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, the obvious question: So? Should you and your boss be friends on Facebook?
The answer, of course, is not simple. Among the team’s findings was that people weren’t just uncomfortable getting friend requests from their bosses; even requests from their subordinates felt awkward. “It was just the asymmetry of hierarchy that made people uncomfortable,” Rothbard said.
When it was the bosses who reached out on Facebook, participants in the study appeared to equate them with their parents. They had the same dilemma over whether to add them as ‘friends’ or not. And they used the same logic to arrive at their ultimate decision.
The boss’s gender plays a role in an employee’s willingness to accept the invitation. In one experiment, Rothbard found that participants were more likely to accept Facebook friend requests from female bosses when the women disclosed more information about themselves online. When male bosses disclosed more information about themselves, however, participants were less likely to want to virtually connect with them.
“It’s the creep factor,” Rothbard says.
Gender, it seems, may not only influence how likely work colleagues are to connect online but also how likely it is that such connections will help their career. A separate study, conducted by marketing firm Russell Herder in October 2011, found that almost a third of men in their sample said that being online friends with their manager helps them do their job at least somewhat more effectively. Only 15 percent of women connected to their supervisor said the same.
Rothbard’s research has also found significant upsides to effectively bridging the divide between life in the office and life on the Internet. In a separate study she is working on, she found that people seen as “integrators” are ultimately viewed as better performers in the workplace. This means that someone who successfully blends their personal online image and their professional in-person image could get a boost on the job.
“There’s basic research in psychology, all around face-to-face, that shows that—provided that the exchange of information is appropriate—the exchange of information leads people to build stronger bonds with each other,” Rothbard said. “If I share more with you, you like me better. And if you share more with me, then I like you better. It’s a cycle.”
But doing that well online is harder than doing it in person. It’s not just a matter of keeping embarrassing photos or hot-button political views off your online profile; there’s another, more systemic challenge, according to Rothbard. We don’t receive the bounty of feedback cues from an online audience that we do face-to-face—the nods, the eye rolls, the glances at the clock—that subtly help us tailor the amount and type of information we choose to share.