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An uneasy partnership: Social media in business... and in the workplace

Online conduct of employees

In its infancy, social media was most certainly not regarded as a business matter. Like use of personal email accounts, it was often viewed by employers as merely a trivial pastime for timewasters; a furtive way for office minions to enjoy jokes and express some individuality.

However, recent years have seen a shift towards harnessing the powers of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and their contemporaries for professional gain. Businesses which formerly found satisfaction in drawing a nice thick line between colourful internet use and the workplace have been forced to rethink their approaches, as the medium has emerged as a potentially powerful marketing tool.

Many companies are struggling to get to grips with what this actually means, particularly in terms of how to manage the flow of information. One of the biggest battles has become the online conduct of employees – a multi-faceted issue if ever there was one.

Blurring the line between personal and professional in the information communications world has always been a headache for employers. Until the 1990s, concerns were dominated by excessive breaks, misusing the office phone to catch up on gossip and private information spilling out in the pub.

Then, suddenly, inappropriate email chain letters (aka 'forwards') and online chats began to make employers realise just how frighteningly boundless the internet could be. Indiscretions which would formerly have been brushed under the carpet became immediate and documented – and sometimes even public.

Should businesses be more 'grown up'?

Arguably, there are three main areas of concern for businesses when it comes to the online conduct of employees:

1) Leaking of sensitive information with troublesome legal or financial consequences.
2) Potential reputation damage when an employee publishes something embarrassing or possibly defamatory.
3) Waste of company resources by shirking work in favour of personal tasks.

The first means that even in today's super-connected world, there are businesses which don't allow any use whatsoever of internet services on their premises, while employees are governed by strict regulations concerning public conduct.

The second has led to several public furores in recent years, caused by a myriad of daft actions, from teachers criticising pupils on Facebook to coffee shop baristas posting comedy songs about their jobs on YouTube. Outside work, a company cannot directly control what an employee publishes online, meaning it is left to the judgement of each individual. It also raises the thorny issue of defamation versus freedom of expression, which predates social media and still extends far beyond its realm.

The third concern may be seen as the most trivial, but probably affects more workers than the previous two points combined. Email and other internet applications are essential to the daily running of many businesses and it is not necessarily productive to block certain websites, particularly if employees are encouraged to use social media platforms for marketing purposes.

The crux of the matter comes down to conduct within the workplace and how 'downtime' is viewed. Should employees be trusted to check their personal emails and social media updates without it interfering with their productivity – just as they might take five minutes to make a cup of tea, chat to a colleague about their weekend or grab a breath of fresh air?

Many feel that this approach promotes a more 'grown up' workplace, with increased morale – thus encouraging workers to produce better results.

Others, however, may feel that all personal use of ICT is a waste of precious working minutes and should not be tolerated. This can be difficult to enforce, as independent thought does have a pesky habit of seeping out.

In any case, a clear, concise company policy is essential, along with a concerted effort to ensure that every member of staff has read and understood it. Regular, open discussions with workers may also help to keep abreast of difficult issues which arise. Such measures are unlikely to prevent all problems, but if employees are actively encouraged to think twice before posting – and are completing a satisfactory amount of work, regardless of how their time is managed – then surely it's a good start.

Liane Baddeley

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