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Balancing the Risks and Benefits of Social Media in the Workplace

Should companies restrict employees’ access to social media sites? There seems to be no clear consensus.

March 8, 2010
Sponsored by Robert Half Finance & Accounting

As social media networks explode in popularity, an issue confronting businesses is whether to restrict employees’ access to these sites while at work. This seemingly straightforward question is complicated by the fact that a growing number of accounting firms have their own presence on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which they may use for recruiting purposes or to maintain contact with clients.

Companies have yet to reach a clear consensus on the issue of workplace access. A Robert Half Technology survey of more than 1,400 chief information officers found that more than half of those polled (54%) do not allow employees to visit social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter for any reason while at work. On the other hand, 19 percent permit access only for business purposes; 16 percent allowed limited personal use; 10 percent permitted access for any type of personal use and one percent either didn’t answer or didn’t know of a company policy.

There are persuasive arguments for each approach. The use of social networking sites in the workplace has the potential to divert employees’ attention from pressing work priorities. At least one study documented decreases in productivity when workers were allowed to visit these sites at work — probably no surprise to many managers who have witnessed this in their workplaces. Potential distractions such as social networking may be of particular concern to accounting and other professional services firms that must adhere to inflexible deadlines and keep meticulous records of work time for client billing purposes.

Risky Business

Companies also open themselves to a variety of internal and external risks from employee use of social networking sites. Recent research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) identified several of these risks. In terms of internal communications, the CEB noted how quickly information flows through social network mediums. Employees can more easily share among themselves information on everything from compensation to business plans and inconsistencies in company positions or policies. Social media also could open additional avenues for harassment among employees to occur, according to the CEB.

The group’s research also noted certain external risks that firms might experience from employees using tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, including:

  • The premature release of information on new products or other confidential information such as details related to mergers or acquisitions; and
  • The revelation of sensitive business information, ranging from problems with management, organizational culture, customers or products and services.

Policies Lag Behind

Despite the fact that many businesses are increasing their investments in social media — the CEB survey found that 71 percent of companies plan to do so -- only one-third of those surveyed had guidelines for how social media should be used in their organizations.

Although social media is a fast-evolving area, businesses shouldn’t delay evaluating their own strategies and goals as it pertains to these tools — an essential first step in developing or refining appropriate usage policies. Other considerations include a firm’s corporate culture and the nature and extent of risks that may be encountered through employees’ usage of social media, as well as the benefits the organization might derive from their use of these tools to drive business. If a firm determines that social media plays an integral role in its marketing or client outreach strategy, for example, then managers would want to consider empowering employees to use social media for business purposes. 

In addition, firms may want to factor in their employees’ expectations when it comes to social media usage. For instance, those with a large number of Generation Y employees may meet with considerable resistance if a heavy-handed approach is taken to restricting access to social media. This is not to say that a strong policy is bad business; it’s just that firms should consider all ramifications and determine what works best for them.

Crafting thoughtful and balanced policies on social media is likely to be an ongoing exercise for businesses, one that will need to continually evolve to keep pace with usage trends and emerging technologies. For now, many firms may be ahead of the curve simply by beginning to evaluate the risks and benefits of social media to their organizations and developing guidelines driven by their conclusions.

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Founded in 1948, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, a division of Robert Half International, is one of the world’s first and largest specialized financial recruitment service.  The company has more than 360 locations throughout North America, South America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, and offers online job search services at www.roberthalffinance.com.