Sharing the wrong thing on social media can cost people their jobs, or even their careers and professional reputation. In 2011, Bob Parsons, founder of the GoDaddy group of companies, tweeted a video in which he shot and killed an elephant in Zimbabwe. After PETA responded by shutting down its GoDaddy account and asking others to do the same, Parsons had to quit as CEO. And in 2012, U.S. Marine sergeant and Iraq War veteran Gary Stein was dismissed from the military with a “less than honorable discharge” for his negative remarks about President Barack Obama on Facebook. (Pentagon policy limits the free speech rights of service members.) Waitresses at Applebee’s and Chili’s have been fired after using Facebook and Reddit to complain about customers’ tips or to make insulting statements about local police.

High-profile cases aside, nearly every employed person who uses social media (and that means most of us) will experience, at some point, some kind of dissonance between our online presence and our job. For example, will you share this article on social media? That’s probably safe because Psychology Today is an established, widely-respected magazine. But what about content that suggests something about your political views, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation? And what about those vacation photos of you posing in a swimsuit: Do you necessarily want your boss and coworkers looking at them?

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are spaces in which the lines between personal and professional are often blurred. Participating in these networks both opens up opportunities and creates challenges for us as employees as we strive to establish and maintain respect and liking in the eyes of our professional contacts (Ashforth, Kreiner, & Fugate, 2000; Kossek, Noe, & DeMarr, 1999; Phillips, Rothbard, & Dumas, 2009). And increasingly, not maintaining a social media presence can harm our careers. In a recent CareerBuilder survey of 2,300 hiring managers, nearly 40 percent said they use social media to screen potential hires and assess cultural fit.

A problematic feature of social media is that we can’t physically see or hear the large number of people we’re “talking” to. Unlike offline interactions, in which disclosure and feedback are tailored within particular conversations and guided by clear physical cues (Goffman, 1956), social media interactions are characterized by open disclosure to broad audiences, some of which are not readily visible (Boyd, 2007; Donath & Boyd, 2004; Ryan, 2008). So we tend to forget that this invisible audience is present: dozens, even hundreds, of people are reading our posts and forming judgments about us. Traditional ways of managing our psychological boundaries and our identities don’t translate very well to cyberspace.

In my forthcoming article with Ariane Ollier-Malaterre of the University of Quebec in Montreal, “Social Media or Social Minefield? Surviving in the New Cyberspace Era,” we attempt to better understand how people craft social media strategies and what the key success factors are. We interviewed top-level and middle managers, entry-level employees, graduate students entering the job market, and self-employed individuals. We then conducted surveys on social media behaviors and analyzed over 450 public comments in response to a blog that cited some of our work on online boundaries that appeared in a public LinkedIn post, Psychology Today, and the Huffington Post.

We identified four archetypical social media strategies that people tend to employ: Open, Audience, Content, and Custom.

The “Open” Strategy: Airing your views and feelings freely. Benefit: Bridging the professional and the personal; acting authentic. Cost: Some may respect or like you less, or be reluctant to hire you.

The “Audience” Strategy: Airing your views and feelings but keeping professional and personal networks separate (for example creating a private Facebook account or protected Twitter account.) Benefit: Privacy. Cost: Offending professional contacts by not accepting their attempts to connect; not spanning boundaries.

The “Content” Strategy: Sharing only information that aligns with or enhances your professional image. Benefit: impression management. Cost: Appearing inauthentic; can’t control what others say.

The “Custom” Strategy: Managing both your audience and your content via customized privacy settings or multiple customized profiles (for instance, setting up distinct Twitter and YouTube accounts like many journalists and public figures do.) Benefit: Relatively safe self-expression. Cost: Spending a lot of time and effort.

None of these strategies is perfect. But a critical first step is to analyze the social media strategy you’re already using, and assess if it is really the best one for your needs. That way you can minimize the chances of social media backfiring either on you or your company. In fact, both employees and managers would benefit from re-evaluating online boundary management behaviors so they align better with personal styles, organizational goals, and what’s expected in their particular occupation or industry.


D. Boyd, ‘‘Social network Sites: Public, Private, or What?’’ Knowledge Tree, 2007, 13 pdf

A.J.C. Cuddy, P. Glick, and A. Beninger, ‘‘The Dynamics of Warmth and Competence Judgments, and Their Outcomes in Organizations’’ Research in Organizational Behavior, 2011, 31, 73–98

J. Donath and D. Boyd, ‘‘Public Displays of Connection,’’ BT Technology Journal, 2004, 22(4), 71–82

N. B. Ellison, C. Steinfield, and C. Lampe, ‘‘The Benefits of Facebook ‘‘Friends’’: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites’’ Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 2007, 12, 1143–1168

M. Hoffmann, ‘‘EFF Posts Documents Detailing Law Enforcement Collection of Data From Social Media Sites,’’ 03/eff-posts-documents-detailing-law-enforcement and ‘‘U.K. Social Media Users Get Legal Advice From On High On Avoiding Contempt Of Court’’ h 2013/12/04/the-fine-blue-line/

A. Ollier-Malaterre and N. P. Rothbard, Social Media or Social Minefield? Surviving in the new cyberspace era, Organizational Dynamics, 2015, in press.

A. Ollier-Malaterre, N. P. Rothbard, and J. M. Berg, ‘‘When Worlds Collide in Cyberspace: Boundary Work and the Quality of Professional Relationships in Online Social Networks’’ Academy of Management Review, 2013, 38(4), 645–669.

D. Schepp, ‘‘1 In 3 Employers Reject Applicants Based on Facebook Posts’’ 18/one-in-three-employers-reject-applicants-based-on-facebook-posts/April 18, 2012

“5 Non-Tech CEOs Using Social Media To Drive Business Results” http://blog. (Retrieved on Dec 10, 2013); Facebook Statistics, 2014, http://www.

McLean Hospital press release, ‘‘Breaking the Physician-Patient Boundaries on Facebook?’’ 2010, news/2010/03/02/breaking-physician-patient-boundaries- facebook

About Nancy Rothbard:

Prof. Nancy Rothbard is an award-winning expert in work motivation, teamwork, work-life balance, and leadership. She is the David Pottruck Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She is also faculty director of “Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success,” a Wharton Executive Education

Prior to Wharton, Prof. Rothbard was on the faculty of the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, and holds degrees from Brown University and the University of Michigan. She has published her research in top academic research journals in her field and her work has been discussed in the general media in outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Business Week, CNN. Forbes, National Public Radio, US News & World Report and the Washington Post.

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