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Social media at work -- bane or boon?

By Anthony Balderrama,
  • Some companies ban the use of social networking at the office
  • Survey: 45 are highly concerned about unauthorized information being posted
  • 17 percent investigated postings; 10 percent punished policy violations
  • There are also concerns about employees wasting time

( -- Social media are, by definition, supposed to be a social experience. Make a profile and start connecting. Reach out to friends, old and new. Post a profile picture, and while you're at it upload a photo album of your trip to Greece so others can see and comment.

When you're done with that, look at your friends' profiles and see what they're up to. Oh, a friend just logged in, too, so now you can chat.

What, it's been two hours since you logged on? How did the time pass so quickly? You should get back to work.

And this is why some employers have banned social media sites -- as well as other potential time wasters -- from the office. The only problem is that social media aren't a fad. Certain sites might have come and gone over the past five years, but the movement toward interactive communities continues, and companies are active participants.

In fact, having social media skills on your résumé is a boon right now, when many of today's employers haven't ever logged on to Facebook or Twitter and don't understand what these sites do.

The case against social media

Few employers would argue that social networks are inherently bad, but what makes the sites great (freedom to post what's on your mind, discuss the day's hot topics, post silly pictures) is also what makes the sites dangerous for a company. Consider these findings from a 2009 survey on policies and data loss risks from Proofpoint Inc.:

• 17 percent of companies report that they have investigated the posting of confidential, sensitive or private information to a social network, such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

• 10 percent have taken disciplinary actions against an employee who violated social networking policies in the past 12 months.

• 8 percent terminated an employee for violating a social networking policy.

• 45 percent are highly concerned about unauthorized information being posted on social networks.

Even the most ardent Facebooker can see that employers have reason to be concerned about security breaches. Factor in the issue of wasting time and you have a viable threat to productivity. Or is it all sound and fury?

Dona Hall works in a commercial real-estate firm where Facebook and MySpace are banned from any computer connected to the network. Sites for shopping and watching sports are also restricted. Yet, Hall points out that employees could use a smart phone to connect to any of these sites and the company couldn't stop them. She says she thinks that doing so wouldn't address the problem, however.

"As a manager, the focus needs to be on tasked results and productivity, not merely taking the toys away and hoping they don't find something else with which to play," Hall says.

Site forbidden

Nan York works for a corporation that has blocked several Web sites, including Facebook, and her work experience is worse as a result.

"I am not more productive for it. I worked hard for my employer before the ban, and appreciated having something I really enjoyed doing in my few minutes of break from my work," York says. "I am a grown-up and take my grown-up responsibilities very seriously -- from paying my bills to doing my work. I don't need stodgy, out-of-touch corporate drones to censure me."

For York, the situation is an issue of trust, or lack thereof, by her bosses.

"They don't trust their work force to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate media in the workplace, or to do work when on the job," she says.

Book Masters Distribution has found one solution, says marketing coordinator Kim Swanstrom. The company has blocked all social networking sites, as well as streaming media and other potentially objectionable or harmful pages.

"As I do understand the importance, it does become extremely annoying when I am researching things and am constantly being blocked," Swanstrom says. "We try to keep up with what is being said about our books and our company on social networking sites. Our solution has been to set up a community computer in plain sight that has no restrictions."

Other organizations, such as the Patrick Hoover Law Offices, use social media for their businesses. At Hoover Law, employees and interns are encouraged to access and utilize social media as they see fit because it can help the business. Facebook has been successful in getting new clients and publicity for the firm. Plus, the organization can tout its tech-savvy approach to business, not to mention the effect that access to social media has on employee morale.

Obviously, companies haven't formed a uniform stance on social media, and based on their varying experiences, a single approach might not be the best way to handle it. If Facebook can benefit your company, why would you ban it? If employees are wasting time and bandwidth, does it make sense to allow it?

Ultimately employees' best chance of avoiding this battle is to keep the social networking to a minimum while on the clock. Don't give the boss a reason to dislike social media and you won't have to resort to crouching under your desk to check Facebook on your iPhone.

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