U-M Study: Don’t Turn Your Workspace into a Second Home


tKeeping your personal and professional lives separate may be your best bet not only in landing a job, but getting that next promotion, says a new study released today by the University of Michigan.

t“This norm of keeping work and non-work roles separate is strong, and you will be judged by it,” says Jeffery Sanchez-Burks, associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. “People are significantly less likely to be asked for a second interview if they violate this norm in a very subtle way. It also shows how these norms perpetuate themselves.

t“These are the gatekeepers of companies, the ones who make the hiring decisions,” says Sanchez-Burks, who led the study. 

tThe research found that those who share too much of their personal life are seen as less professional and suffer career consequences such as negative evaluations by hiring managers and colleagues.

t“This information reveals a fundamental tension in so many workplaces,” Sanchez-Burks says. “Everyone knows it’s important to be perceived as professional, but that involves a lot of implicit, unspoken norms that might only be apparent when they’re violated.”

tSanchez-Burks and his co-authors performed three studies to find out how people view professional behavior, ultimately finding that the idea of professionalism varies on a global level.

tIn one study, the authors asked people in managerial positions to picture the office of a hypothetical co-worker with a reputation for being either professional or unprofessional. U.S. workers imagined a greater proportion of personal artifacts in the unprofessional colleague's office than in one described as professional. While an outright ban on personal objects wasn’t observed, the amount to be considered professional was minimal.

tIn addition, the longer foreign-born participants lived in the U.S., there was greater bias about personal life references.

t“This shows that how we think about professionalism isn’t universal,” Sanchez-Burks says. “The conventional wisdom is that U.S.-style capitalism is globalizing workplaces. But we’re seeing that cultural differences remain in the work setting, particularly when it comes to how we view professionalism.”

tIn a second study, U.S. and Indian participants judged a pretend job candidate. Two different answers to one question about building rapport with a client were randomly assigned. In one version, the candidate said he would make small talk about family and children. In the other version, he said he would make small talk about the person’s office.

tThe U.S. participants negatively evaluated the candidate who talked too much about their family. Indian participants, by and large, did not view this as negative.

tAnother study repeated the exercise with U.S. job recruiters. They negatively evaluated candidates who said they would use non-work small talk to build rapport with a potential client.

tThe research paper is set for publication in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. The co-authors include Susan Ashford of the University of Michigan, Eric Luis Uhlmann of HEC Paris, Emily Heaphy of the Boston University School of Management, and Luke Zhu of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.