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October 30, 2012

Should you friend your boss on Facebook?

In a sign of our changing times, a forthcoming white paper out of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton school bears the title, "OMG My Boss Just Friended Me."

The study will add to the small but growing body of academic research into how online relationships between colleagues inform, and are informed by, face-to-face interactions at the office.

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.

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