The Debate Over Social Media at the Office

Boon or Bane?

Smartphones, personal digital assistants, texting, blogs, social media. They're all part of the workplace now, and how companies deal with them is a direct reflection of their corporate culture. Some encourage employees to hop on Twitter and Facebook, to help build their brand online and take advantage of viral marketing. But there are more businesses concerned with lost productivity, security risks and distracted workers on the job, and they are inclined to cutting off access to social media or banning the use of personal technology in the office entirely.

In interviews with more than 1,400 chief information officers, Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm, found that 54 percent banned employee access to social media sites. Some workers jump on the sites only at work, the research firm Nucleus IT found, and spend as much as two hours a day on them.

"It's interesting to track how companies, on the one hand, want their people to be connected to and part of the latest technology trends, but, on the other hand, they want to limit or control what happens then," says Chris Boudreaux, an author and blogger who maintains socialmediagovernance.com, which has compiled more than 100 corporate policies on social media.

For example, at American Honda Motor Co., the U.S. arm of the Japanese auto manufacturer, employees must make a "business case" for access to social media and certain popular websites, including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube. "We trust our folks but we're also transparent with them," says Marcos Frommer, a company spokesman. "You need to tell us why you need access to those sites for business purposes."

Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare provider, has a similar policy--employees may use social media for work purposes but only if following detailed rules, such as maintaining patients' privacy rights, being respectful and abiding by copyright law.

On the other hand, Zappos.com Inc. ascended to net lore when Amazon paid $1 billion to buy the shoe e-tailer, partly for the online outreach expertise of its employees. Razorfish, a digital ad agency, encourages its employees to be at the social media fore. And IBM has set up well-received employee blogs, with a disclaimer on its website that the opinions expressed aren't necessarily those of the firm.

Highly regulated businesses, such as financial services, have imposed some of the toughest rules banning cells, PDAs, texting, IM-ing and blogging, says Gary McGraw, chief technology officer of Cigital, an international software and security consulting company.

"Most people haven't caught up with the reality that personal electronic devices really have become small but very powerful, mobile computers," McGraw says. "And that has big implications for what's going to go on in the workplace." --C.M.

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This article was originally published in the March 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Debate Over Social Media at the Office.

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