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Battle Lines Over Online

Social networking addiction

Dear Nan,
Help! I’m really miffed. I got reprimanded today by my boss for Facebooking at work. I was only checking my site (call it a coffee break); but, she reminded me of our company policy restricting personal e-mail and internet activity. I didn’t think this included Facebooking as well. Which one of us is over-reacting to this situation, my boss or me?

It sounds like you need to have a chat with your boss pronto—upfront and personal—about expectations. Does she think you are wasting company time? Is she worried about you embarrassing the company? Or, did you just forget to ‘friend’ her?

Your boss is understandably concerned about the possibility of you frittering away productive time while you ignore your duties. Social networking addiction can be as distracting as any other obsession. Some employees
will literally spend hours every day playing games and visiting social networking sites and consider nothing wrong with that. This is a two-fold concern. You have defined an increasing problem of employees and management today trying to sort out the fuzzy lines between work and personal time (and tools) including social networking, even with the boss. Texting, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking are everyday activities for employees in our work world. In addition, electronic tools change and update as we blink.

For employers, their main concerns are the maintenance of security as well as productivity. And the bottom line is that your company is responsible and liable for the use of all its electronic equipment and all activity (proper or improper) on company property. Misuse of any technology today may result in serious, potential litigation for organizations. Thus, management is increasingly concerned about protecting itself legally.

The lines are confusing. To add to the mix, some employers view professional social networking such as LinkedIn as a positive addition to their public relations efforts. Your social networking holds the promise of boosting the company’s credibility and exposure that can attract new talent, lower recruitment costs and enhance the buzz of marketing efforts. Other employers worry about everything from wasted time on the internet to confidentiality breaches and liability for what their employees do online; therefore, they have zero tolerance. Consequently, we are all struggling to establish a satisfying middle ground “one size fits all” culture.

Your boss has a point. Don’t make your boss the bad guy for raising the issue with you. The reasoning goes like this: You’re writing on equipment owned by the company, using software licensed by the company, as a person paid by the company. Your company has a reasonable expectation that the company’s interests will be served first and protected as well. You are using company gear on company time, so it’s better to be concentrating on what you’re paid to do and not be excessive or inappropriate. Because your company is accountable and liable for the actions of its employees, it has an obligation to protect itself by tracking, monitoring and recording all employee activities in cyberspace. And, the courts have stood squarely behind a company’s right to do so (including secret monitoring).

You can launch the conversation with your boss. You need to be proactive in opening the doors of communication thoughtfully and early, before misunderstandings erupt, with both your boss and your co-workers. If social/professional electronic networking is acceptable on your job, then you need to clarify a few guidelines accordingly so everyone is on the same page.

• Establish a professional Facebook site separate from your personal one.

Setting up distinctly separate personal and professional personas is the safest way to protect both your company and yourself and eliminate any confusion or misunderstandings. Using time at work to maintain your professional site is reasonable; it’s not as appropriate to spend time chatting or working with your personal site.

• Clarify how much is too much time online.

Ask your boss how much time online is acceptable? Is an online presence helpful? What can (or cannot) be said, when can you say it and where can you say it? Remember, you’re hired to work, not to play.

• Utilize the “reasonable time” factor.

Companies have always acknowledged their employees’ use of company equipment from time to time for “reasonable” personal use. In other words, if a “reasonable person” would think such and such, act accordingly. Your instincts will be your best guide to what is and what is not appropriate; but, communicate with your boss and co workers so you are clear on the specifics. You won’t be sure until you talk about it.

• Determine what can or cannot be said on your site.

You have no way of knowing, so speak up and clarify what the company policy is before you land innocently in hot water.

Caution is your byword here even on your personal site. You may possibly include somewhere in your online persona information about where you work; so, any misbehavior or shrill diatribes may cause your company (or you) to look foolish or worse.

• Avoid any compromising misbehavior.

Employees sending or receiving e-mails or texts, or climbing into websites that are sexually explicit, racially offensive, obscene, or harassing in any manner can result in your company’s vulnerability to a lawsuit under federal guidelines on harassment. Facebook activity offers the same vulnerability (just look at the teenagers being caught in the “sexting” nets). As a result, zero tolerance of such misbehavior is the norm (not the exception) today.

• Remember social networking sites last forever.

Whatever is placed online stays online. Don’t post something that may prove embarrassing tomorrow, next week or in a few years. In this tight job market, employers are doing web searches on potential employees, finding their social network pages and judging accordingly. It may not be fair—and certainly cannot be proved—but, a party scene has the potential to instantly knock you out of the competition.

• Maintain your company’s confidentiality.

Do not post confidential, proprietary or protected information. Use good ethical judgment and common sense. Would you want your boss to read what you just wrote?

• Protect your identity.

Don’t provide personal information about yourself or others that scam artists and identity thieves might steal. This includes work-related telephone numbers, mailing and e-mail addresses.

• Think twice before friending your co-workers.

Are they real friends or work friends? They will usually agree because they don’t want to offend you by saying no. But they also don’t want you to see their wall posts.

• Learn about the privacy settings of every site then, use them.

Unless you want everyone to know the details of your personal life (or thoughts), be vigilant in changing those default
settings to something you are comfortable with.

• Share your goals and expectations with your online network.

“I’m looking to my social network for (new job, old love, book ideas, etc.)… I usually don’t check my pages but once a day…” For all the time you invest (hopefully wisely) in social networking, it would be nice to get some payback. The ethical bottom line for you, personally, should be: Refrain from Facebooking, blogging, e-mailing, tweeting, texting and posting until you have a clear understanding of your company’s policies. And, if your company has no such policy to date, you may be just the one to help launch it!

See you online!

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars