Social Media Communication in the Workplace: Evidence From Public Employees’ Networks

Published date01 June 2020
Date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2020, Vol. 40(2) 245 –271
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X18804016
Social Media Communication
in the Workplace: Evidence
From Public Employees’
Federica Fusi1 and Fengxiu Zhang1
Although public employees increasingly utilize social media in the workplace, public
management scholarship has provided little evidence on how public employees use such
tools and what role they play in professional networks. Public organizations struggle
to balance policies encouraging social media use for communication and regulations
that prevent time wasting or security issues. We suggest that an examination of social
media communication patterns can guide public organizations to design organizational
policies and address internal social media use. Combining a network approach with
insights from communication and social media studies, we investigate how closeness,
proximity, interactions, and resources predict public employees’ communication on
social media. We develop and test a multilevel model using 2014 egocentric network
data among 2,362 employees in a U.S. public university. We find that social media
communication in public organizations is explained by proximity, closeness, and social
interactions rather than professional interactions and access to resources.
social media, networks, professional relationships, communication
Social media tools are Internet-based communication platforms that “build on the
ideological and technical foundations of Web 2.0 and allow the creation and exchange
of user-generated content,” such as text, videos, or images (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010,
1Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA
Corresponding Author:
Federica Fusi, Center for Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Studies, School of Public Affairs,
Arizona State University, 411 N. Central Avenue, Ste. 450, Phoenix, AZ 85004-0687, USA.
804016ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X18804016Review of Public Personnel AdministrationFusi and Zhang
246 Review of Public Personnel Administration 40(2)
p. 61). They include free platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and fee-
based services such as Ning, Basecamp, and LinkedIn Premium. Some social media
are designed to exclusively connect professionals in a certain field or provide a venue
to socialize and exchange professional advice within organizations (Kügler, Dittes,
Smolnik, & Richter, 2015). Enterprise Social Media (ESM) or GovLoop are examples
of professional social media platforms.
Social media were initially designed for personal use, but they are increasingly
pervasive in individuals’ professional life (Mergel & Bretschneider, 2013). As indi-
viduals utilize social media to communicate and connect with friends and family, they
replicate similar practices with their colleagues. A national survey conducted by Pew
Research reports that Americans utilize social media in the workplace to “make or
support professional connections” (24%), “build or strengthen personal relationships
with coworkers” (17%), “learn about someone they work with” (17%), and access
information from someone either inside or outside their organization (12%). Studies in
public organizations also consistently report that public employees utilize social media
to maintain contacts and exchange information with colleagues inside and outside
their agency (Fusi & Feeney, 2018; Khan, Swar, & Lee, 2014).
As social media use grows, employers have developed organizational practices and
policies on social media use in the workplace. Some organizations encourage employ-
ees to use social media to communicate across departments, share information, and
socialize with colleagues (Cao, Vogel, Guo, Liu, & Gu, 2012; Pandey & Bretschneider,
1997; Treem & Leonardi, 2012). Others are concerned that employees might disclose
sensitive information or that social media use might decrease work productivity as
employees connect with friends while at work (Dunn, 2013; Wood, 2013). Therefore,
they monitor, limit, or block access to social media websites during working hours.
This trend appears on the rise in public organizations where some employers adopt
strict social media policies and monitor employees’ social media accounts (Tufts,
Jacobson, & Stevens, 2015).
Despite growing interest, more research is needed on the role of social media in the
workplace and to what extent and how public employees use social media. Scholars
have built solid knowledge on social media use for organizational purposes, such as
engagement with citizens, and they have examined whether public employees utilize
social media tools for work purposes, mostly treating social media use as a dichoto-
mous phenomenon (Bretschneider & Parker, 2016; Feeney & Welch, 2016; Kavanaugh
et al., 2012; Medaglia & Zheng, 2017). But to the best of our knowledge, few studies
have considered the networking nature of social media tools and investigated how
social media are entering workplace practices of communication, socialization, and
exchange among coworkers (Wukich, Siciliano, Enia, & Boylan, 2017; Yates &
Paquette, 2011). As social media use in the workplace increases, these questions are
important to guide social media policies and understand how social media shape work
environment and outcomes in public organizations.
This article focuses on social media communication among employees in a public
organization as a first step to move forward social media research. Communication is
an active process of interaction that provides the basis for employees to socialize, form

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