I’ll bet that at least some of your employees are heavily into MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites. Of course, what your employees do with their free time is their own business. But what about the employees who social network at work? Moreover, online social networking can create major problems for employers, even when employees do it from home. As HR director, you need to safeguard your company against the dangers.
What Is Social Networking?
Social network services use software to build online communities of people who share common interests. Members typically create their own profiles and interact with each other via chat, messaging, video, file sharing, blogs, discussion groups and other methods. There are two basic kinds of social network:
An internal social network (ISN) is a closed, invitation-only community whose members usually come from the same company, society, association, school or organization.
An external social network (ESN) is a public community open to all web users. The best known social networks, including Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, are ESNs.
Note: The terms “social network” and “social networking” in this article refer to ESNs, not ISNs.
The 4 Problems that Social Networking Creates for Employers
Social networks can be a forum for employees to exchange professional guidance and pick up tricks of the trade and other insights that help them do their jobs better. But, it can also pose major challenges for employers:
1. Productivity Losses
Probably the greatest risk to business posed by social networking is lost productivity. Anyone who has at least dabbled in the experience can understand how addictive social networking can be and how easily it can suck up your time. What may be intended as a simple exchange can suddenly turn into a day-long interaction. And, of course, many employees choose to do their social networking at work.
The productivity losses resulting from these diversions are only beginning to be measured. For example, a 2007 BBC report cites a recent study that reveals that social networking could be costing UK employers an average of about £130 million in lost productivity–per day! (But see the item below to find out about a study that supports the opposing view that social networking improves productivity.)
2. Threats to Business Confidentiality
One of the things people like to talk about is their jobs. And in a social context, they tend to speak candidly. When such conversations occur face-to-face or on the phone, they’re generally kept private. But keeping such interactions private is much more problematic when they occur online, especially within an ESN. Just about anybody who has access to the internet can join an ESN and get in on the conversation.
Consequently, work-related conversations by employees on social networks can create big problems for employers. One of the most serious risks is that employees will reveal confidential information about the company or the business. For example, the employee might express concern to her Facebook chum that her company is talking to another corporation about selling off the business unit she works for. The disclosure may not be a deliberate attempt to disclose a company secret. The employee may simply not know that the negotiations with the other company are highly sensitive and must be kept secret. But even if the indiscretion isn’t ill-intentioned, once the information is out in cyberspace, the damage is done.
3. Undermining of Management
Many employees use social networks to vent about their jobs and the people they work with. Of course, complaining to friends about work is a venerable and largely harmless social tradition. But when it happens online, it’s much more serious, even if the whole conversation takes place while the employee is off duty and at home. In a cyber world, gripes get expressed in the form of inappropriate postings, pictures and jokes about bosses and co-workers on the internet where anybody can see them. In addition to harming morale and collegiality, such communications can expose the company to the risk of liability for harassment, discrimination and other violations. They also can be a form of insubordination or insolence to the extent the communications are contrary to explicit company policies or undermine managerial authority.
Example: In her blog, an Alberta employee referred to the nurse who supervised her as “Nurse Rached”—the nurse from hell in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Although the employee didn’t use her name in the blog, she didn’t bother to hide the fact that she worked as a nurse in a hospital department in a particular Alberta community that had only one hospital. Result: It was pretty easy to figure out the identity of the blogger and the supervisor the “Nurse Rached” comment was directed at. An arbitration board ruled that the hospital had just cause to fire the employee for insubordination [Alberta v. Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (R. Grievance),  A.G.A.A. No. 20, April 11, 2008].
4. Harm to Company’s Reputation
Employees might also say unflattering things or post inappropriate material or videos on their networking page about the companies they work for or its customers. Companies are extremely concerned with their image, notes Ontario employment lawyer Mary Gleason. “The negative things employees say on social networks and blogs can undo the millions of dollars some companies invest to improve their corporate image and public relations,” Gleason explains. When employees identify themselves as employees of your company or provide information making it possible to identify their employer—like the Alberta employee in the “Nurse Rached” case—their negative online postings can do real damage to the company’s reputation and its standing with customers. Two recent examples:
Recognizing the potential threat that social networking poses to your organization is just the start of the challenge. What can you actually do to manage the problem? More precisely, how do the policies, procedures and conceptions for imposing discipline that were largely forged in the 20th century apply to the 21st century phenomenon of social networking? We’ll address that question next week.