Online time-wasting: get out of my Facebook

Online time-waster or useful tool? Roisin Woolnough finds out what you can get out of social networking websites.

Many organisations have a relaxed attitude to employees using social networking websites such as Facebook and Bebo at work. But it looks as though that’s about to change. A survey by Personnel Today and law firm Charles Russell, called Social Networking Research, revealed that HR professionals are becoming increasingly worried about the potential misuse of these sites.

Most (66%) of the 226 senior HR practitioners interviewed said their organisation allows employees access to social networking websites. However, more than two-thirds plan to start monitoring (45%) or limiting (24%) online social networking activities in the next six months. A further 8% are so concerned that they plan an outright ban.

Some organisations already have a policy of only allowing staff to access such sites outside core business hours (26%). “We are all thinking about how you regulate these sites,” says Alan Warner, director of people and property at Hertfordshire County Council. “It’s unpredictable, so the knee-jerk reaction is to say: ‘Don’t use them’. We need to stop them from being a distraction and being badly used, so we have to think sensibly about how they can be used.”

Michael Powner, partner in the employment and pensions service at Charles Russell, agrees. “It’s embryonic and employers are mostly being reasonable about what staff are allowed to do, but they are worried. They are thinking: ‘How could this be detrimental to us?'” he says.

What a waste of time

The main concerns employers have about social networking sites are time-wasting (69%), security problems such as viruses (69%), non work-related activity (67%), and loss of productivity (67%). What employees are doing on those sites is slightly less of a worry, with 57% of respondents being concerned about inappropriate images or content being posted. A third, however, were concerned about potential damage to their organisation’s reputation.

Seven in 10 employers also believe that the discovery of inappropriate photos on social networking sites that identify the employer could result in disciplinary action. This is something the British Transport Police (BTP) had to contend with recently when a senior member of staff posted graphic details of his sex life and photos of himself posing in his uniform on Facebook.

As a result the BTP issued him with a written warning and disseminated a clear message to all staff. It has updated its company policy, banning the use of social networking sites at work, and stating that staff are banned from identifying themselves as employees “where any content could be considered inappropriate or would have the potential to cause embarrassment or reputational damage to BTP”.

Perhaps not surprisingly, 60% of respondents to the Charles Russell survey said they would consider disciplinary action if negative comments about their companies were written by an employee, either during work time or from an employee’s computer in their own time.

Watch your reputation

The research showed that smaller organisations are more likely to allow unfettered access to social networking websites, as are media organisations, IT and communications firms. The public sector is more circumspect, however. That is because it has to be, says Gillian Hibberd, corporate director, people and policy, at Buckinghamshire County Council. “It is particularly important for public sector organisations to think carefully about usage of these sites. There is integrity and reputation to consider,” she says. Employees at her council are not allowed to use such sites at work. “They are blocked. While we are happy for employees to use the internet during work time, we have blocked access to certain sites.”

It’s not just social networking websites that are causing concern. Organisations are worried about general internet use, blogging and how much time staff spend online for non work-related surfing. Most respondents limit (79%) and monitor (66%) internet use at work, and almost half expressed some concern about excessive use.

Half of those taking part in the survey would consider restricting personal use of the internet to lunchtimes if they felt excessive online usage had become a problem for their organisation. Almost a third would consider an outright ban on internet use at work.

Time for policies

Powner believes that employers need to think about what they are happy for staff to do online (at work or at home), particularly with regard to social networking sites and blogging. HR professionals need to draw up strong policies and disseminate them clearly to staff. “There certainly need to be codes of conduct on what employers will do about usage, what is acceptable and what isn’t,” says Powner. “The parameters need to be set out clearly.”

Employers also need to be clear about their own behaviour – if they monitor staff activity online, what will they be monitoring, how, and what they will do with the data they gather? Policies need to spell out what employee behaviour online will result in disciplinary action, and what that disciplinary action might be.

Employers are allowed to monitor staff activity online, but that monitoring needs to be made known, be ‘reasonable’, and employers need to ensure they only hold appropriate information on file.

Of those taking part in the survey, 17% already have a policy about social networking websites, 25% do not and would not, and 58% do not have a code, but would consider having one. Four in 10 (41%) said they would require legal assistance to draw up such a code, 42% said they would not and 17% did not know if they’d require legal support. The research highlighted a need for employers to think about how former employees are to be treated if they use social networking sites as a forum to vent frustration about their former employer. Charles Russell has seen an increase in employers contacting them to draw up codes of conduct for ex-employees. “We have had a lot of incidences of ex-employees putting defamatory references on the ‘wall’,” he says. “Mostly employers seem to be ignoring it at the moment, except for the worst cases.” Almost all HR professionals (90%) claim they don’t search sites like Facebook for comments by current or ex-employees, but 10% say they do.

This is new territory, so the rules are still being written. But HR professionals need to get savvy about what social networking sites mean, both the negatives and the positives. Some HR professionals have already latched on to how sites such as Facebook can work for them, with 27% using them for recruitment purposes. Media and professional services are ahead of the game, but all sectors need to consider it, says Hibberd. “We don’t use such sites as recruitment tools, but you have to look at whether or not it would be useful. We are at the start of something, so you have to look at it.”

Key Findings

  • 29% of respondents do not allow staff access to social networking sites at work.
  • Seven in 10 (69%) who do allow access plan to monitor or limit usage in the next six months.
  • Time-wasting, security, non work-related activity and loss of productivity are the main reasons for not allowing access to social networking sites.
  • 79% of employers allow employees only limited internet access.
  • Two-thirds of organisations monitor employee internet usage.
  • Three-quarters think there needs to be a code of conduct.
  • One-quarter would use searches of social networking sites as a recruitment tool.

Source: Personnel Today/Charles Russell Social Networking Research

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