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March 1, 2011

The battle to separate the personal and the professional

Social media is inexorably coalescing our personal and professional identities. What happens when baby pictures, political views, drinking habits, and hobbies collide with your corporate persona?

The idea that your personal life is relevant to your success at work is not new. In fact, the idea that your personal life is not relevant to your work is new. Old-fashioned networking through social ties (such as college fraternities and country clubs) results in a strong correlation between traditional social networks and business networks. Go back further in history, and you find careers passed down from generation to generation.

Even though it’s illegal in the United States to discriminate in hiring based on race, sex, marital status and a host of other factors, there’s ample evidence that executive career success (PDF) is correlated to certain demographic characteristics. (The implications for those of us who are not part of the preferred demographic cohort—white married men—are troubling.)

In many organizations, especially large corporations, the military, and parts of the government/civil service, spousal career support is expected. For example, the military has family support groups to help families manage the stress of extended deployments. For a given unit, the commander’s spouse is expected to lead or at least contribute to the family support group. An unmarried unit commander, or a commander married to someone who refuses to take on this responsibility, is at a career disadvantage compared to his peers with more cooperative wives.*

For many of us who work in technology, the idea of being judged by our spouse’s or significant other’s behavior seems, at best, antiquated.

Facebook is basically your father’s old boy network. In the past, a drunken escapade at the Christmas party might become the stuff of legend via the office rumor mill (which may be analog, but is nonetheless terribly efficient). The same drunken escapade captured on Facebook becomes problematic not just within the existing office network but potentially with a wider audience. The root of the problem, however, remains the same—the inconvenient commingling of personal and business life.

I still snicker about how some of my more, shall we say, party-loving college friends have turned into apparently responsible adults. I don’t think I’d care to attend college in today’s era, where a night of partying can easily be documented on Facebook for posterity and potential hiring managers.

On a more optimistic note, there are major benefits to online networks, especially the ability to maintain relationships with friends, family, and colleagues that I rarely see in person.

I believe that strict separation of business and professional life is impossible. The behavior of your friends and family will have an impact on your professional life. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that “firing a worker’s fiancé in retaliation for a sex discrimination claim filed by the worker is itself unlawful (full article, NY Times).

What is the best way to handle your dual identities as a professional and as an individual? Acknowledge and manage the conflict. Acknowledge that someone will probably be offended by your political and religious views, no matter what they are. Think about whether you care. Do your coworkers, colleagues, and professional peers largely agree with your views or are you an outlier? What parts of your personal life are you willing to share with your business life? Beyond that, may I recommend the following:

  1. Don’t be an idiot.
  2. Don’t do stupid stuff
  3. If you do something stupid, don’t put it on Facebook.
  4. Recognize that your political and religious views (or lack thereof) will be offensive to someone. Think twice before you post a call to participate in events that are obviously political or religious.
  5. People will judge you by your friends and your affiliations. Think twice before you “Like” that Glenn Beck post. (I tried to come up with a liberal equivalent, but couldn’t think of anyone equally offensive. I’m sure my bias is showing.)

What are your strategies for managing the intersection of personal and professional life?

* Technically, the expectations are gender neutral. There are, of course, military officers who are women. However, it was my experience when I was an Army wife that somehow, it was understood that the few Army husbands might not be available due to their own professional commitments. Army wives were expected to put the Army first and any cute little side job second. PS I’m not THAT old. This was in the late 1990s.