MessageLabs has released a white paper called Online Social Networking: The Employer's Dilemma.
Its purpose is to distill the rift between social networking's popularity, and UK employers' attempts to yank it out of the workplace.
Social Networking Casualties
According to the white paper, social networking isn't the miracle of productivity some would have you believe it is.
Last we heard, the average active Facebooker logs onto the site about seven times a day. That's a lot of poking. "Social networking sites can be both addictive and time-consuming, damaging employee productivity," the paper reads. "Employees may spend an excessive amount of time on these sites."
No, we're not referring to the "social networking" implementation in your latest enterprise CMS.
Your employees network, all right -- on Facebook, MySpace and any of the hundreds of thousands of blogs of which they might be big fans. And productivity isn't the only thing that suffers; one fell (and totally traceable) comment made on your IP, or one irresponsible photo found on some intern's profile, and your company's image can be hurt, too.
"Employers may be identified and there is always the possibility of derogatory comments or disclosure of commercially sensitive information being made by an employee, which then becomes a permanent feature online," the paper preaches.
While an employer's within his rights to ban social networking from the workplace entirely (indeed, at least 43 percent of UK-based employers have), said employer is probably in for a morale backlash of epic proportions.
There are cases in which social networking is beneficial:
* It is easy to maintain casual, friendly contact with valuable affiliates
* It gives you insight on popular trends amongst those in your network (Facebook Newsfeed, anyone?)
* Loose information on social networks, like user-generated reviews, can prove valuable -- even crucial -- to making product purchasing decisions * Strangely enough, appearing on a social network may construe a sign of legitimacy. Check out this story in which Steve Webb, a parliament member and one of the UK's Liberal Democrats, was kicked off Facebook on suspicion that he wasn't the genuine Steve Webb. Havoc ensued!
In other words, it isn't social networks that are bad; it's lack of education about the pitfalls and the possibilities.
Get it together!
* Educate your employees about the merits -- and dangers -- of social networking
* Consider putting together an enforceable and clear Acceptable Use Policy
* Make sure social networking behavior observes any regulatory policies that apply to you. eDiscovery may prove especially sticky for Stateside companies. Under eDiscovery, any digital information they convey -- even on their blogs -- during office time falls under jurisdiction of the company. It can be used against the enterprise in a lawsuit, in some cases. And employers have the right to track all of it. Thus...
* Use your best discretion to track employees' social networking behavior
Whatever you do, don't ignore the phenomenon.
"Given the ever-growing popularity of such sites and the potential consequences for employers of employee misuse, simply ignoring the issue can only lead to problems for the unwary employer," MessageLabs warns.
Download the MessageLabs social networking white paper, or check out what they've got on tap. (Did we mention they're a web security firm?)