Scott Austin makes a living arguing lawsuits over online privacy matters. He understands why his former law firm has a strict policy forbidding social networking in the workplace. But Austin saw firsthand the dilemma a business faces when young associates came to him frustrated: "They were saying we need it because it's the way our potential clients communicate." • While most companies understand the value of connecting with customers online in social networks, some also fear employees will waste work time or, worse, reveal confidential information or offend a customer or co-worker.
With social networking exploding, at some point this year, every business will have to confront the challenge and answer this question: Embrace it or ban it?
As a boss, Max Borges chose to embrace it. His Miami agency provides marketing to consumer electronics and personal technology manufacturers. It is flush with young account executives whom Borges trusts to use social networking productively, even at the office.
"They work hard and get their job done. I know they might be posting during the day, but if they were slacking, it wouldn't go unnoticed."
Borges says he's wise enough to know his employees are going to be on Facebook or LinkedIn or blogs whether or not he bans them. So instead he held a meeting and taught his workers about privacy settings and etiquette around social networks.
"I think the way to go is to talk openly about expectations, respectful conduct and productivity."
At the other extreme, financial firms like JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley or traditional companies like FPL chose to block or forbid employees from going to external sites at work.
Indeed, one in four companies blocks access to social networks because they view them as a productivity killer, according to a 2008 survey of 200 human resource professionals by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement consulting firm.
Technology innovation expert Scott Klososky calls corporate attitude toward social networking a replay of their original response to the Internet.
"They blocked the Internet, but it was so powerful they had to quit blocking and change to monitoring."
Banning it outright might not work anyway. According to a study by Ruder Finn, a public relations agency, most people use their handheld devices to connect to the Internet instead of desktop computers, with 91 percent of mobile phone users going online to socialize compared with 79 percent of desktop users.
And, as experts note, if workers are forced onto their handhelds, employers can't monitor their usage.
At Pordes Residential Sales & Marketing in South Florida, tech-savvy Michael Internoscia, vice president of sales, uses social networking in business.
"There are a ton of sales agents out there, and we connect with them on LinkedIn and invite them to our projects," he said.
But the real estate agents are independent contractors. Internoscia doesn't want his staff members on social networks during the workday.
"I'm the guy who would say, 'What are you doing? You're not going to blog or Twitter on my dime.' "
In most workplaces, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter checks have replaced daydreaming for a few seconds or walking to the break room.
For the most part, companies are okay with that. James Pedderson at Challenger, Gray & Christmas thinks that because work duties and personal lives have become blurred, most employers look the other way, unless it becomes a problem.
"They realize they are asking a lot of their workers, so as long as productivity is not falling off, they're not going to bust their chops."
Klososky, author of Enterprise Social Technology, says companies are just beginning to understand how big an issue this will become.
"Their young workers are digital natives. They've grown up with social networks and see them as tools. When those tools are blocked, they don't want to work for that company."
Even more, by going a step further and building their own social networks, companies can connect and communicate with staff, crowd-source new ideas and encourage collaboration, he says: "It is not a fad anymore. It's a powerful trend. Strategic companies won't ban its use, they'll integrate it."