Employer attitudes toward on-the-job social networking run gamut from complete bans to a free-for-all.
Want to share your recipe for apple chicken stew with your Facebook friends? Or pictures from your most recent vacation at Universal Studios Orlando?
Not from the computers at the law firm Fredrikson & Byron will you, nor from the computers of TCF Bank.
Both Twin Cities firms, and uncounted others, ban Facebook visits on their computers by employees.
The policies basically are intended to remind employees that they are in the workplace, well, to work. The Internet sensation that has changed how millions share their lives will have to wait until after hours.
"We wanted to put a stop to persistent personal use," said Teresa Thompson, an employment and labor attorney at Fredrikson & Byron who advises clients on social networking policies for their businesses.
"We don't want people doing this on our computers," said TCF's Jason Korstange. Asked if it was a productivity issue, Korstange replied, "As much as anything."
As Facebook has reached 500 million users, the website has become a conundrum for employers. The behemoth of social media offers an intriguing way to make business connections, but it can also be a major distraction. One recent survey by Network Box found that employees click on Facebook at work more than any other website, including Google.
Google "Facebook at work'' and you'll turn up more than 1.2 billion hits, proof, if any was needed, that on-the-job social networking is a white-hot topic. And as other networking options continue to expand -- Twitter and LinkedIn, among them -- many employers are re-evaluating how to manage social media in the workplace.
Some employers are completely open to the likes of Facebook and Twitter and even encourage their use. Others are using the social networks strategically to recruit employees, market their brand and serve customers. A third group is trying to figure out what are appropriate interactions on Facebook in the orkplace.
"We're entering this new world and what do we need to know?" Thompson asked. "I think it starts by looking at human resources best practices. Would you want a supervisor drinking with subordinates on a weekend? If the answer is no, then you probably don't want a supervisor to have a subordinate as a friend on Facebook."
Thompson said she began fielding inquiries from clients about social networks about two years ago. Far and away, the most confusion centered on Facebook, she said. Other social media such as LinkedIn are seen more as a résumé-building destination while Twitter has yet to gain the same following as Facebook.
"Facebook can be a good tool, but you have to be careful," Thompson said. Eric Howell, director of social media at Bayard Advertising in Minneapolis, said employers are beginning to see value in social networking but are still concerned about creating a free-for-all.
"Social networking has made everyone more connected to people, news, research, industry intelligence, breaking stories, weather, flights, directions, products, brands, services and information in general. These things can be very powerful if used and managed correctly in the workplace," Howell said.
Striking a balance
Human resources consultant Steve Jewell said some business policies regarding access to social networks are "all or nothing." But employers can provide recommendations on its use, he added.
Employers can ask employees to do their networking after hours or over the noon hour and to use sites like Facebook responsibly.
"They say, 'We want you to be responsible. This is not permission to surf the Internet,'" Jewell said of a typical employer's guideline. "They might also say, 'Don't let social networking interfere with business.'"
UnitedHealth Group has two pages of guidelines for employees when it comes to social media use, including a reminder that individuals are "solely and legally" responsible for the content they post online. The guidelines also warn against disclosing confidential or proprietary information and ask employees not to contribute postings to social media sites on company time unless directed to do so by a manager.
Too many rules, or none at all
"We want to be able to balance the effectiveness of these tools to reach the audience we want to reach," said UnitedHealth spokesman Don Nathan. "If you have too many rules, you choke off the utility of these tools. If you have no rules, you run into trouble."
But at the Minneapolis ad agency Campbell Mithun, president Rachael Marret said participation on Facebook and other social media networks is "voraciously encouraged."
"We want to know how to leverage the social environment to create engagement on the brands we represent," Marret said. "Our people need firsthand knowledge of the dynamics of these markets. It gives them deeper understanding of consumer needs.
"We're at a tipping point." Marret added. "In the next three to five years all media will be digital. All media will be social."
Workplace expert John Budd, chair of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the Carlson School of Management, said the debate over Facebook is similar to the debate over e-mail a decade ago and personal telephone use several decades earlier.
"It's like a lot of HR issues where companies have to carefully consider the type of climate they are creating," Budd said. "Do you want to create a climate of trust and empowerment ... or do you want to create a climate of distrust, monitoring and control? Just because companies have the authority to block social media does not mean they should."
David Phelps • 612-673-7269