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Social media is work worry: Some companies block Facebook, Twitter sites; others embrace them
[April 25, 2010]

Social media is work worry: Some companies block Facebook, Twitter sites; others embrace them

Apr 25, 2010 (The Columbus Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Corey Bruns surreptitiously goes on Facebook several times during the workday from his mobile phone, holding it under his desk so his supervisors don't see.

In fact, the 28-year-old customer-service worker for a large Columbus-area communication company -- he'd rather not say which one -- said he spends most of his day on Facebook, despite his company's strict ban on such activity.

"I use it to do a lot of promotions for my band Lemming," the Zanesville resident said.

The company has blocked all social-networking websites on its computers and prohibits employees from accessing the sites using their own mobile devices.

But that hasn't stopped Bruns, who said the ban on Facebook has caused him to spend more time there, not less.

"I've been caught before and warned not to go on Facebook at work, but I continue to do it anyway." If the company allowed access, "maybe more people would probably do it less." Social-networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have exploded in popularity. Facebook alone has more than 400 million active users, the company says. The average user spends 55minutes per day on the site.

Of the 100 million who access Facebook on a mobile device, most spend twice as much time on the site as nonmobile users, the Palo Alto, Calif., company says.

In response, more companies are toughening their rules on how employees use social-networking sites at work.

A total of 38 percent of chief information officers have implemented stricter social-networking policies, while just 17 percent say they have relaxed the rules, according to a study this month from Robert Half Technology.

And 55 percent ban the use of social-networking sites altogether, said Jason Skidmore, regional vice president for the California-based information-technology firm. Skidmore is based in Columbus.

"The challenge for companies is balancing the benefits of social media in the workplace with the risks," he said. "The key is for each company to understand how or if it can benefit from the use of social-networking sites and to have a policy that they communicate clearly to their employees to avoid any confusion." Robert Half Technology allows its several hundred local employees to access Facebook and other online networking sites for business purposes only, Skidmore said.

"Companies are waking up to the fact that they have to have some sort of policy in place," he said. "But there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to social-networking policies.

"Firms have to evaluate how employees can use social networks to keep pace with developments in their industries, stay connected with business contacts and promote their organizations without sacrificing information security or employee productivity." The issue is becoming more significant: Facebook surpassed Google as the Internet's most-visited site in the United States during the week of March 7, according to Internet-research company Hitwise. Likewise, Twitter boasts about 105million users, who post roughly 50million Tweets a day, according to the San Francisco-based company.

And LinkedIn, the business-oriented social-networking site, has about 60million registered users, most of whom identify themselves as business professionals, the California-based company said.

As more people access social-networking sites, employers such as Nationwide have had to adapt Internet policies to evolve with the changing times and technology, said Steve Keyes, vice president of associate relations and human resource policy at the Columbus-based insurance and financial-services company.

The company's 35,000 employees, including 11,000 in central Ohio, can access social-media sites during the workday as long as the time spent on the sites doesn't interfere with their work, he said.

"We don't want to cut them off from the rest of the world," Keyes said. "Nationwide is a great place to work, and we want our associates to feel empowered and trusted to do the right thing.

"We want our associates to be brand ambassadors, and social media is one way to spread the word about the great customer service we provide. We are trying to be a leader in this area." Other companies have a different view.

JPMorgan Chase is one that doesn't allow its employees to access social-media sites via company-owned computers, spokeswoman Mary Kay Bean wrote in an e-mail. The bank has 15,000 employees in central Ohio, with major operations at Polaris and Easton and in Westerville.

"We want to make sure employees are focused on serving customers," she said.

Companies' concerns about the use of social-networking sites boils down to two issues: how much time is spent on the clock and what's being said.

The latter is of particular concern to Susan Porter, an attorney with Columbus law firm Schottenstein Zox & Dunn.

A company's Internet policy should deal with using socialnetworking sites at work as well as how employees' social-networking posts can affect a company outside work hours, she said.

Seventy-two percent of corporations now worry that what employees say on such sites can put their company at risk, whether through disparaging comments about the company or releasing trade secrets, she said.

In fact, a study last year found that 17 percent of companies reported such incidents involving sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Just 12 percent reported such exposure in 2008. That study was conducted by e-mail-security firm Proofpoint Inc. and involved 220 e-mail decision-makers at U.S. companies with more than 1,000 employees.

You don't have to look hard to find examples. Forbes recently reported on several, including the case of Gloria Gadsden, an associate professor of sociology at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania.

She joked on Facebook about being frustrated with her students. One of her posts early this year read, "Had a good day today. Didn't want to kill even one student." Sensitive to recent violence on college campuses, university officials who became aware of that and other similar postings placed her on paid leave. She was allowed to go back to work last month, Forbes said.

As a result of what they consider problem postings, more companies are taking action against offending employees. Eight percent of those responding to the Proofpoint survey had fired an employee for violating social-networking policies, as compared with 4 percent in 2008. And 10 percent of companies had taken other disciplinary actions in such cases.

One of the best ways for a company to protect itself, Porter said, is to have a clearly defined online social-media policy. It should address who can speak for the company and how to safeguard confidential information. In addition, it should advise employees of how off-duty conduct could violate employer policies and place limits on or prohibit use of social media during work hours, she said.

In addition to keeping a handle on what's being said about them, companies also should be figuring out how to protect their intellectual property, said Joanne Dehoney, senior director for learning technology at Ohio State University.

OSU's 27,547 employees are allowed to access social-networking sites, Dehoney said, but the university doesn't monitor people's use of computing resources.

"Rather, we educate them about using computer resources in accordance with our policies," she said.

Some companies and organizations embrace social media and, in certain circumstances, encourage their employees to use them to "get the word out." The Ohio Chamber of Commerce is one. Its employees aren't blocked from accessing Facebook or Twitter and are encouraged to talk on the site about things they're working on to get information out to the business community, said Julie Wagner Feasel, vice president of communication for the group.

"We discussed what would happen if something goes up that shouldn't go up (on a social-networking site) and came to the conclusion that if we hired these employees and trust them, then we should be able to trust them to put appropriate information on Twitter," Wagner Feasel said.

"We haven't run into anything that's been inappropriate, but that's because we went into it with a level of trust with our employees." To see more of The Columbus Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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