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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Social Networking and the Workplace

Social Networking and the Workplace - a Blog posted for our employees

As technology evolves, we’re seeing social situations develop in the workplace that can present a challenge to workers and companies.

I’ve always believed that solid inter-personal relationships between co-workers, based on mutual respect and a shared belief that they each can have a positive impact on the company, can add tremendous value to a person’s job. I’ve also witnessed that when this occurs within an entire company, all of the employees performance will almost always increase, which allows the company and its employees to reap great benefits and rewards over time.

In a 2004 article on this subject, USA Today wrote:

“The Gallup Organization surveyed 5 million workers over 35 years searching for what magic makes some workers engaged, and others not.

Engaged workers are more likely to receive regular praise and are given an opportunity to do what they do best every day. But what Gallup has uncovered about best friends at work stands out as novel:

• Among the 3 in 10 workers who strongly agree that they have a best friend at work, 56% are engaged, 33% are not engaged and 11% are actively disengaged to the point of poisoning the atmosphere with their negativity.

• Among the 7 in 10 who do not strongly agree that they have a best friend at work, 8% are engaged, 63% are not engaged and 29% are actively disengaged.

In other words, those who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged. Those who don't have a best friend have slim 1-in-12 odds of being among the engaged. Worse, the best-friendless stand a one in three chance of being actively disengaged. That means they may threaten sabotage or otherwise become a serious drag on the company's success. Those who don't have a best friend can consider themselves far more likely candidates for dismissal.

In a separate study of 161 employees of an unnamed large telecommunications company near San Francisco, Columbia University organizational behavior associate professor Francis Flynn found that workers who do a lot of favors for each other are more productive than those who focus strictly on their own jobs. Favors must be a two-way street, however. Those who do a lot of favors for each other are more productive, but not those who do favors but get little in return. Small favors that are reciprocated build trust that leads to an exchange of bigger favors, Flynn says

We’ve begun to see a transformation happen at our company in the past year, and especially in the two months. Our productivity has increased significantly, and while a large part of this has to do with the proprietary software we’ve built and have been using, and in part to our merging two locations back into one, a large part also has to do with our staff, and their level of engagement in their jobs. This causes me to reflect on how we got to where we are, and how can we continue to improve as we move forward into the next chapter of our organization.

While I doubt that we have a lot of employees who can say that their absolute “Best Friend” works with them at our company, I know we have a few examples of that, and I am one of them as my wife and I are partners in this business, and we’re “Best Friends”. For the purposes of the Gallup Survey, I believe they viewed the term “Best Friends” as a person who has many “Best Friends” in their lives, with some being at work.

We also are a relatively new company, and as time goes by, and as we build a staff of like-minded people with similar goals and values, I hope we can see a point where 3 of 10, or even more people in our employment are working with their “Best Friends”. With that said, when I think about the term “Best Friend”, I would hope that anyone considering another person to be their “Best Friend” would only do so after knowing that person for years, and not weeks or months.

As I started to think about how we’ve built prior companies that have achieved a significant level of success, I soon realized that the playing field has changed a great deal since then. Specifically, technology has affected the relationships our employees form with each other, and this is especially true as it relates to Social Networking.

Wikipedia, or the online version of Webster’s Dictionary (for any old timers reading this), describes a Social Network as:

A social network is a social structure made of individuals (or organizations) called "nodes," which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.

Social network analysis views social relationships in terms of network theory consisting of nodes and ties. Nodes are the individual actors within the networks, and ties are the relationships between the actors.

While social networks have existed since the beginning of man, it is something that has grown by significant proportions with the evolution of technology. It started with computers, then email, then cell phones, then My Space, and in the past few years, it has exploded due in large part to the ability to easily communicate with more people through texting, Twitter, and the most popular social networking site to date; Facebook.

The description above talks about an interdependent connection forming the foundation of a person’s social network, and the first example it lists is “friendship”.

I went back to Websters to get the definition of a “friend” as Wikipedia is an on line dictionary/encyclopedia that anyone can edit and change. Websters creates definitions that have stood the test of time, rarely changing, and when they make a change, they have studied and made sound decisions on why the definition should change.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, can be changed by because he wants to.

To really drill down on the different type’s of relationships people form at work, and in their lives, I thought the synonyms of the word acquaintance from Webster’s formed some appropriate categories.

I think it’s interesting to look at these categories and see where the people in your business social network, and in your personal social network fit in:

1. Acquaintance, associate, companion, a person with whom one is in contact. An acquaintance is someone recognized by sight or someone known, though not intimately
2. A Casual Acquaintance. Or an associate is a person who is often in one's company,
3. A Business Associate. A person who shares one's activities, fate, or condition usually because of some work, enterprise, or pursuit in common
4. A friend is a person with whom one is on intimate terms and for whom one feels a warm affection
5. A Trusted Friend. Familiarity, awareness.

Many people spend as many or more hours with co-workers than they do with their families, and many people spend more hours in a week with co-workers than they spend in a month or more with their trusted friends. Due to this, we have seen friendships in business turning into friendships in people’s personal lives. In recent years, I’ve witnessed this happening more frequently, and with more negative effects than I have seen in prior years, or pre-technology, if you will.

I am fifty years old and I have been in business for over thirty years. I’ve been an employee, a co-worker, a manager, and for the past twenty years I’ve been a business owner who has employed as many as 125 people at once through several different businesses my wife and I have started.

I’ve participated in, managed, or encountered many types of relationships with co-workers I’ve worked alongside, or people I’ve managed, or employed. In all this time, and through all these relationships, I’d like to think I’ve learned a little bit about the dynamics of employee/employee, employee/employer and even client/vendor relationships.

One of the first rules I was taught, but it took me a few mistakes to understand why it’s a common saying you have all heard is……… “you don’t mix business with pleasure”. defines this as:

Mixing business with pleasure:

To combine work with social activities or enjoyment

(usually negative)

I didn’t put in the “usually negative” part, BTW, but I totally agree.

Believe me when I say I’ve been there. For example:

I’ve partied with co-workers and then realized that wasn’t the best idea, especially when something happened when we partied, and now I knew more about that person than I cared to know, or needed to know, and it changed our relationship.

I’ve made decisions regarding employees that were affected by my personal relationship with them, and they’ve almost always ended up being bad decisions.

A person I thought was a good friend turned out to not be such a good friend.

The negativity of a person I got too close to started to cause me to become negative myself, and I like to think of myself as a positive person.

“Don’t they ever have anything good to say” or “Why do they work here if they always complain”?

I’ve gone out with co-workers and later figured out they weren’t someone I’d normally associate with, but when they asked me to go out I felt it would have been rude to say “no”, but then the relationship became uncomfortable at work when up until then my professional relationship at work with that person had been great. I should have just said I had a prior commitment.

Does any of this sound familiar? We’ve all been there.

Technology has given the average worker new challenges through their constant availability with their cell phones, texting, and through social networking sites like Facebook.

In doing some research, I found an appropriate comment about Facebook on a person’s blog:

“For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there's a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-co-worker who I'd cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, "Am I your friend?" yes or no, this instant, please.”

I think the co-worker example above may seem exaggerated to many people who have co-worker friends on their Facebook page, but from my experience, it’s just another step in the direction of mixing business relationships with personal relationships at a stage that is way too early, and where the problems that can result are not worth the risk.

On the client/vendor front, I know companies have witnessed a conflict of interest when an employee of theirs and an employee at the client/vendor are friends with each other, and it can or does affect their business relationship. We see some clients who can not even accept a box of chocolate from a trusted vendor at Christmas, which may be a bit over the top, and we see some who recognize that when the sales rep or owner of the vendor takes the vendor manager or decision maker to the Super Bowl, that may influence their decision to give that company work, and rightfully so, they put the kibosh on those types of activities.

As technology evolves, I now see a new twist happening through social networking sites. For the record, we are drafting our own social networking policy and this will also be a “no-no” for us. I want people to use our services because we do a good job, not because they like how we look in our profile photo, or because my people socialize with our client’s employees outside work, and are friends who converse regularly on Facebook or Twitter.

I have a Facebook page, and at first I felt awkward when a person at work “friended me”, asking if I’d join their social network on Facebook. I kind of looked at it like when a seventh grade friend of my son sent me a friend request on my personal Facebook page. I like the kid, and didn’t want to seem rude, but I think it best if my relationship with this kid remains as my son’s father, and not as a friend of mine on my personal Facebook page.

I saw the person at work the following day and told them I appreciated their asking me to be their friend on Facebook, but I preferred to keep my Facebook page separate from work. They said ok, and I think they understood.

When I go back and read the “friend” definition on Webster’s, I realize I have personal friends, business friends, family friends, etc. Sometimes my family or personal friends cross over into people I place in my social network, and I have them on my Facebook page, but when it comes to work, I prefer to keep my work relationships at work, and to me, those are almost always relationships with “business associates”, otherwise the mix of business and personal becomes to consuming. It’s already become more difficult to separate work and personal with the availability of email on cell phones, etc.

In my career, I’ve learned there is a time and a place for business, and the same goes for pleasure, which I think is not the right word as I enjoy working, so I usually find it a pleasurable experience.

I think a better analogy would be business and personal. While I think there is a time and a place for mixing the two, based on my personal experience, I’d try and limit my outside of work relationships with my co-workers to company events that are not work related, i.e. company picnics, holiday parties, etc. As the owner, or as a manager or a person of responsibility over others within a company, it is a different landscape than with a co-worker-to-co-worker relationship. While we realize people will become friendly and over time will develop friendships at work, and those may carry over to outside work, the best advise I can give is to take your time, and really get to know the person and make sure that your relationship with them outside the job is based on their being a “trusted friend”, and to me anyway, it takes a significant amount of time, usually a year or more, before I place a friend in that category.

For this reason, I personally do not consider it a good idea to mix your friendships at work with your friendships in your personal life until a significant amount of time has gone by. I can give you a hundred examples where things went wrong, and in almost every case, it was when a person rushed into a relationship with another person without really knowing them. They placed the person into a position of trust, and many times they got burned. I’d have to think really hard to come up with examples where a business relationship turned into a personal friendship within a few months of the people knowing each other and it benefitted both parties, and the company.

On the other hand, I can think of a small amount of examples where a relationship built over a significant amount of time, mutual respect, and trust, evolved between two co-workers and it carried over from work into their personal lives and both employees, and the company, benefitted. It’s rare, but when it happens, it really adds value to his or her jobs, and to the company.

This is a difficult rule to keep. I enjoy working with everyone here, and I’m sure I’d enjoy skiing with many of you, or going out for dinner, playing a sport or just going to lunch and chatting, however, if I do that, then in my situation, others may feel as if I am playing favorites. Also, what if we become close friends and I have to discipline the person, or promote someone over the person I have become close with and that move upsets them?

From a co-worker standpoint, you have the same issues. “Why does she go to lunch with him every day?” What if you see someone you become friends with doing something you know is not right, will that influence your decision to say something that would be in the best interests of the company? If the time comes for a promotion, will your boss feel as if you have developed too many personal relationships with people you’d be supervising and then you get passed over? Will someone spread rumors about you because they are jealous of your relationships with co-workers, or they misunderstand your intentions, even if they are completely trustworthy and honest? Those are just a few examples of the risks involved with developing relationships that move from business associate to friendship at work. When they happen in a matter of weeks or even months, the risk of a problem is elevated. When they happen as people really get to know each other, and as each person cements their position within the company, the risk becomes reduced.

Another reason I feel the mixing of your personal and work life should be approached with extreme caution is the simple fact that you need to charge your batteries when you’re away from work, and the best way to do that is to leave work at the office and come in fresh the next day. If you spent an hour on the phone at home after work speaking with a current or an ex-coworker and work was discussed, yours or theirs, that’s not usually a healthy phone call for your psyche. Are you talking about good things? “Oh, I love my job” and if it’s an ex-employee you’re speaking with, what do they think of that if they are no longer there? Are you complaining to each other about something that bothers you, and how does that negativity affect you? Or what if you’re happy and your new personal friend from the office isn’t, will they call and tell you how they love their job or will they call to bitch, or worse yet, post it on Facebook?

Here are some interesting questions to ask yourself when making friends at work :

• If your friend left the company, would you still be in touch with her in a year?
• If you had a personal emergency, would you consider asking your friend for help?
• Do you hang out with your friend outside the office? (Weekday lunch, happy hour, and business trips don’t count.)
• Have you met your friend’s significant other? What about her friends outside the office?
• If your friend received the promotion you were banking on, would you be genuinely happy for her?
• If you ran into your friend in the grocery store, would you be able to talk to her for 10 minutes without mentioning work?
• Have you seen where your friend lives?
• Do you and your friend have anything in common besides your age and your job?

Sources for this blog are: