Should You Ban Social Networking Sites at Work?

Reduce the number of sick days your employees can take, and you can bet you will probably hear some grumbling about it. But take away their Facebook access, and they might quit? Does that sound right? A study conducted by Nielsen revealed that there is a segment of workers who state that restricting their access to social networks at the workplace would push them over the edge and out the door. Now, while there is still a majority of the population that wouldn’t pack up their cubicle over restricting them from their Twitter account, this revelation shows just how important social media has become to the way we communicate, and essentially, the way we live. People can love, hate, boast, and mourn all through their Facebook page, which to some degree has become an extension of themselves.

 On one side of the coin, employers might see social networking sites as a distraction, one more thing beckoning employees from finishing their product report and drawing them to a platform of gossip. On the other hand, social networking sites are not just a perk for employees to get to use; there are tangible business reasons- such as recruiting, information gathering, marketing, etc.- where access to social media sites are actually beneficial to business.
 One way to reach a common ground is to not ban social networking sites all together, but to come up with a distinct and clear-cut policy of their use on the job.  Below is a TechRepublic article on 10 Things to Include in a Social Networking Policy. What are your opinions? Should employers ban social networks from their employees?
1: A clear company philosophy
Before you can develop a policy, you need to define the company’s overall attitude toward social networking. Is it something that you consider to be a strictly personal activity, which should be generally restricted — like personal phone calls and visits from family members — to the employee’s break and lunch times? Or is the company interested in encouraging employees to use social networking for business purposes and incorporate it into their working time?
Some sites, such as MySpace, are primarily for personal socializing. Some, such as LinkedIn, are purely for business. But others, such as Facebook and Twitter, straddle the fence and are used by many for both purposes. You may want to allow or disallow use of specific sites during work time, but that’s a challenge because new sites are always popping up and old sites are always evolving. For example, Facebook began as a venue for college students, but the demographics have changed. A recent study showed that the number of older Facebook users has grown tremendously over the past year, in comparison to the number of younger users:
2: The definition of “social networking”
It may seem obvious, but it’s important that your policy define what is meant by “social networking” or “social media,” since the term means different things to different people. Everyone knows Facebook is a social networking site, but what about Flickr (photo-sharing site), Indaba (musicians’ collaboration site), or LiveJournal (blogging site)? Are Web forums, such as those hosted by many companies for their customers to ask questions, considered a form of social networking under your policy? What about “old-fashioned” online networking methods, such as email discussion lists and newsgroups? Or what about Digg, the “social news site” that allows people to share content?
You may want to name specific sites and technologies, but because new sites are always popping up, you should make it clear that the policies are not limited to the named sites.
3: Identifying oneself as an employee of the company
Your social networking policy should also make clear whether employees are allowed to identify themselves as representatives of the company. Most social networking sites have fields in the user profile for work experience, job title, etc. By identifying oneself as an employee of XYZ Inc., a social networker becomes, to some extent, a representative of that company, and everything he/she posts has the potential to reflect on the company and its image. Unless the employee is engaging in social networking for the specific purpose of promoting the company, some organizations prohibit their employees from listing the company name on such sites. If employees are allowed to advertise their association with the company, your policy should impress upon them that they take on the responsibility for representing the company in a professional manner.
If social networking users identify themselves as employees of the company, your policies should require that any personal blogs and other personal posts contain disclaimers that make it clear that the opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the company.
4: Recommending others
Some social sites provide for members to write recommendations or referrals for friends/associates. If an employee does this as a representative of the company, it may give the appearance that the company endorses the individual being recommended. That could create a liability situation if another company hires the recommended person on the basis of the recommendation. For that reason, some company policies prohibit employees from making such recommendations or referrals.
5: Referring to clients, customers, or partners
Your company’s relationships with clients, customers and partners are valuable assets that can be damaged through a thoughtless comment. Even a positive reference could be picked up by a competitor and used to your company’s disadvantage. Your social networking policy should make it clear that employees are not to reference any clients, customers, or partners without obtaining their express permission to do so.
6: Proprietary or confidential information
Even though you may have other policies that cover the dissemination of the company’s proprietary or confidential information, trade secrets, etc., the social networking policy should reiterate those policies and provide specific examples as they relate to social networking sites. Because social networking communications are somewhat informal, it’s easy for employees to develop “loose lips” – especially when they think they are discussing only among themselves.
Social networking sites have varying levels of security and as public sites, all are vulnerable to security breaches. Your policy should make it clear that proprietary information is not to be discussed or referred to on such sites, even in private messages between site members who have authorized access to the information. You may want to spell out examples of information that is considered to be off limits, such as the company’s financial information, intellectual property, information about customers, and so forth.
7: Terms of Service
Most social networking sites require that users, when they sign up, agree to abide by a Terms of Service (ToS) document. Your policy should hold employees responsible for reading, knowing, and complying with the ToS of the sites they use. It should not contain rules that require employees to violate the common ToS stipulations. For example, most ToS agreements prohibit users from giving false names or other false information, so the company policy should not require users to use pseudonyms when signing up for social networking sites.
8: Copyright and other legal issues
Policies should require that employees at all times comply with the law in regard to copyright/plagiarism. Posting of someone else’s work without permission is not allowed (other than short quotes that comply with the “fair use” exceptions). Other relevant laws include those related to libel and defamation of character. A good rule of thumb is the one our mothers taught us long ago: “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.” Defamatory statements can lead to lawsuits against the author of the statement — and if that is one of your employees, at the very least it can bring bad publicity for the company. A slander suit was filed against singer Courtney Love for posts she made on Twitter.
9: Productivity impact
Social networking sites can be good tools for developing business relationships, but they can also turn into big time-wasters. It’s easy to set rules for purely personal use of the sites, but it’s more difficult to draw the lines when it comes to business-related networking. As with the “six martini lunch,” appropriate use often slips gradually into abuse without the employee even realizing it. That’s why it’s important to set guidelines and priorities. Your policies should make it clear that social networking activities are not to interfere with the employee’s primary job responsibilities.
10: Disciplinary action
To have teeth, a policy must include consequences for violations. The policy should spell out that violation of the policy can result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination, and reference other company policies that lay out the appeals process and other relevant information.

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