Social media at work: where do you stand?

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One of the most hotly debated topics is whether social media at work should be allowed. Leon Walker weighs up the arguments

We all remember the days when most offices banned the use of ‘personal email’. Some employers still do. This was an early attempt at stopping the perceived influence access to the internet was having on staff productivity.

Looking back, with the current omnipresence of smartphones and the continued interconnectivity of our personal and work selves, this behaviour looks to have been as effective as using an umbrella to hold back the waters of a broken dam.

Indeed, a report released towards the end of 2011 by job site found that around a third of employees use Facebook while in the office. Such a figure means that social networking in the workplace is here to stay.

Social media access at work: a tricky beast to manage

But companies and managers are still constantly trying to manage what employees can use their internet connections for. It’s a minefield. For every staff member who listens to Spotify to keep their pace while doing a monotonous task – and is actually more productive as a result – there is his cubicle-mate who spends half of his ‘work-day’ using the streaming music service to make progressive neo-math-rock playlists for his friends.

The old adage that it’s not what but who you know that gets you ahead in business, arguably holds truer than ever in the digital age. Social networking allows virtually anyone to virtually ‘know’ virtually anyone else. So it’s clear that there are business uses for social networks.

To wit, the Reed survey found that 35% of those employees using Facebook on business time said it was specifically for business, while 55% said their use was for both personal and business reasons.

Where do you stand?

Here are three fictional scenarios where an employee has used social networking while at work. Where do you stand?

1. An employee uses Twitter to announce that she has just secured a major contract for her company, the tweet, which was supposed to be proprietary information, generates positive news coverage for the company.

The good: Her actions seem to have had no bad results for the company and may have improved their business prospects. This one could really be seen as a “no harm, no foul” situation. Who knows? It could possibly lead to the company employing a new communications strategy.

The bad: Many companies have policies against communicating confidential information anyway and clearly this employee should have known better.

2. One staff member is caught using Facebook on company time. He is a good employee with a strong work ethic, but social media use is against company policy.

The good: This is a good employee and that should not be ignored. If this staffer was sitting around and not getting his work done and then got caught, bosses would be forgiven for thinking he was spending all his time goofing off on Facebook. But that’s not the case with him, maybe well-timed breaks are a key park of how this employee works and this was simply one of those.

The bad: Clearly this is a breach of trust, the company explicitly forbids social media use at work and this member of staff just ignored the rule. In many ways it’s the same as breaking any other rule at work, such as contravening the dress code or turning up late.

3. In a company that allows social media use, a mid-level member uses LinkedIn to research contacts in a company that used as a contractor by her employer. As a direct result of her efforts and work on the project she is headhunted for a job at the other company.

The good: Well the employee just did her job and presumably landed a pay rise as a result. She can forget about contracts with her former employers though.

The bad: this one is really just bad for the company: they’ve lost a (presumably) good employee to the other company and may think twice about their social media strategy as a result. The other company might want to take a look in the corporate mirror and wonder about the ethics of pinching a client’s staff.

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Leon Walker is a contributor to Accounting Technician magazine.

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