It seems as though everyone is on one or all of the popular social networking sites these, keeping tabs on old friends, making new ones and, of course, goofing off and killing time.

It’s that last one that concerns Lisa Fried-Grodin and Christina Stoneburner, attorneys at Fox Rothschild in Philadelphia. Fried-Grodin and Stoneburner say that while many companies use the social networking sites for getting the word out about their products, there can be drawbacks to the sites, including unproductive work time by employees and inappropriate posts made by workers about the company and co-workers.

To help businesses manage, Fried-Grodin and Stoneburner will present “Managing the Pitfalls of Blogs and Social Networking Sites in the Workplace,” on Wednesday, December 9, at noon at the Princeton Pike Corporate Center in Lawrenceville at noon. To register for this free event, visit www.foxrothschild.com.

“We acknowledge that there is a sales and marketing advantage,” says Fried-Grodin. “We’re advising companies about what implications these sites can have when people in their workforce use them and how it should affect the decisions you make and how much you want to monitor its use.”

Fried-Grodin, a litigator who represents employers in cases alleging discrimination, retaliation, and more, says companies are using a variety of approaches when policing social networking sites. Before pursuing her legal career, Fried-Grodin worked as a business journalist and editor writing for publications such as the New York Law Journal, the New Jersey Law Journal and New York Newsday. She received her bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and her J.D. from St. John’s.

Employers, she says, should strongly consider drafting effective and enforceable social media policy and understand potential liability for employers and employees. They should also be aware of the benefits and dangers of checking applicants’ social networking sites as part of background checks during the hiring process. The seminar is designed to help employers balance their need to have a presence on these sites with the need to police how and when their employees use it.

“How can employers, while still trying to encourage the use of Facebook or LinkedIn, make sure they’re protecting their company’s interests?” says Stoneburner, who provides training on a variety of topics for her firm, including harassment, disciplining and evaluating employees, and diversity.

More than just a time killer. Stoneburner says that of the more than 300 million Facebook users, approximately 87 percent who use it during work time admit to having no work reason for using it, which can result in a loss of productivity.

“We’re talking about a huge number of people who are accessing Facebook at work and the majority of time it’s not for business purposes,” says Stoneburner, who earned her J.D. from the Tulane University in 1994 and is a frequent speaker for the National Business Institute

However, the real problem arises not so much with the loss of productivity, but with what some of those employees are doing. Increasingly, companies are finding that some employees have made postings that disparage the company or engage in harassing behavior while online.

“You have to be aware that your employees are on it and if you don’t have a policy, it’s going to be difficult to discipline that employee,” says Stoneburner.

Setting some guidelines. Companies that don’t at least have a policy regarding inappropriate behavior on social networking sites will find themselves in trouble when it comes time to address those problems. Making things more difficult is that the chances of that behavior occurring at home or away from work are just as great as they are of them occurring in the work place.

Says Fried-Grodin: “Some companies have not done anything yet, but they know they have to do something. Those that are adopting policies are doing it in two different ways. Some are restricting access to these types of sites, some are allowing them to be used for business only, and some are allowing occasional personal use.”

She advises against allowing occasional personal use, however, because it is open to interpretation, should a situation arise in which an employee is spending too much time on the sites. She also says that other companies are simply “putting their head in the sand” and doing nothing, while still others go so far as to have their IT departments block the sites entirely.

But even that isn’t foolproof. Fried-Grodin says that with employees accessing the sites on their phones, laptop computers, and Blackberries, managing an employee’s access to social networking sites during the workday can be tricky.

“You have to make a decision as far as a policing standpoint,” says Stoneburner. “If you’re going to hire somebody whose sole job is to monitor the Internet, they’re going to spend a lot of time and money and it might be cost prohibitive.”

Doing a little digging. While social networking sites are useful for marketing and mass communication, some companies have begun to use them to do background checks on potential employees, a practice Stoneburner and Fried-Grodin both discourage.

“Companies are using it to screen applicants. People and companies want to weed out people who are putting out inappropriate messages or doing illegal activities, and they have good intentions in trying to screen these people out,” says Fried-Grodin. “There are dangers in companies going on these sites in that they’re finding out private information such as religion or weight, things that they can’t see on an employment application.”

In the end, using Facebook to check on an applicant’s references is a bad idea that could open a company up to discrimination issues. “I routinely tell employers that it’s a terrible way to check references,” says Stoneburner.

“However, I have had some employers who use it creatively to see samples of a person’s work.”

Different Strokes. What about the companies that simply don’t want to limit their workers’ access to social networking Web sites? With so many companies using sites like MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook as ways to market their product and themselves, limiting use by employees just doesn’t make sense.

In addition, for companies that deal with the visual arts, visiting a prospective employee’s Facebook or MySpace page that includes artwork, photographs, or video can benefit both parties.

“The bottom line is that every company is different,” says Fried-Grodin. “All companies don’t perceive it the same way, so that’s why you’re not seeing a uniform approach. Every company is different and every employee base is different.”

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