Want to get fired on Facebook?
Write that your boss is a "pervy wanker" who makes you do "s--- stuff" just to piss you off and then post it to Facebook, forgetting you had "friended" your supervisor months ago. Of course, the disgruntled worker's boss read the Facebook post and fired back that the "s--- stuff" you are complaining about is called your job, which you no longer have. And yes, I'm serious."
This case, which became an Internet sensation, is a prime example of how social networking is affecting the modern workplace.
Consider there are now more than 400 million active Facebook users, up 50 million in just the past few months. Nearly half of those users log on at least once a day, some 200 million people worldwide. Over 75 million people also visited "twitter.com" last month, making it the 12th most visited website in the U.S. and the world. And like it or not, a lot of this electronic chit-chat is happening on the company clock.
"It's out there and it's not going away," says workplace attorney Mindy Rowland. "Pretending this doesn't exist is just burying your head in the sand."
But simply telling employees they can't visit Facebook while at work isn't the answer, says Rowland. Neither is blocking certain Internet sites from company computers, although any decent IT person could make that change in minutes. "If you disable company computers, employees will just use their phones or another device," Rowland told a group of some 50 local human resources professionals last week gathered at the Madison Concourse Hotel.
Rowland teamed with DeWitt Ross & Stevens colleague Michelle Perreault for a presentation titled "The Facebook Frenzy: How to Deal with Your Employees' Newest On-the-Clock Pastime."
Many business owners - especially ones who remember the TV show "Lost in Space" but have never heard of "MySpace" - might cringe at the thought of their workers spending time online with friends. But like it or not, social networking is the way of the world today. And while it might seem like a waste of company time and money, some studies suggest workers who frequent "the social" during work time are more productive in the long run.
One 2009 report from the University of Melbourne in Australia found that spending time on personal websites provided workers with "a mental break" that ultimately increased their ability to concentrate, correlating with a 9 percent increase in productivity.
UW-Madison communications professor Dietram Scheufele doesn't dispute the theory that Internet users are more productive workers. But he says it's likely because they are better at using technology, which makes them more efficient to begin with.
"They're the same people who also have the Blackberry next to them and the I-Pod going," he says. "These are the tech-savvy people that every company today wants to keep around."
But it's not the waste of time that presents the greatest risks to employers, says DeWitt's Rowland. The bigger threat, she says, is the possible damage from leaked company information, negative publicity or worse.
For example, if a worker is "tweeting" about what they are doing on the job, they might be giving away proprietary information without realizing it. "An employee may not think much of it, but a competitor might want to use that information," says Rowland.
Moreover, any negative comments about the workplace can take on a life of their own in cyberspace, resulting in damaging publicity for a firm. "If you post ‘my job sucks' to your Facebook page, people can look at where you work and think badly about the company," says Rowland.
The other potential land mine comes with using Facebook or other social media to screen potential hires. Looking up an applicant's profile could be grounds for a lawsuit if the job seeker claims they were snubbed because of information garnered from the web regarding their race, religion or sexual orientation.
"Discrimination and failure to hire cases are on the rise with the tight job market," Rowland warns.
The best way to head off those kinds of problems, says Perreault, is a written policy on social networking. The policy should include guidelines on employee use of social media and how the company uses the Internet to screen job applicants. "You need to create a policy to reduce risk but you can also use the policy to turn a negative into a positive," she says.
Perrault says a company that allows or even encourages social networking on the job will likely be cheered by its employees, branding the company as forward-thinking and ready to embrace the 21st century. "It says ‘we are part of emerging technology,' " she says. "That will lead to posts that ‘my company lets me use Facebook. What a great place to work.' "
Unfortunately, Rowland notes that few companies today have a specific written policy on using Facebook or other social networking sites. That includes Oil Equipment Co. of Madison, according to Jon Gaustad, director of information technology at the company. But after attending last week's forum, Gaustad says it's an idea worth pursuing. The firm has about 50 employees, many of whom travel and spend time away from the office.
"It seems like a way to get everybody on the same page," he says.
Rowland says companies looking to draft a social networking policy might want to include their employees in the process. But she says any plan must go beyond simply being a list of what staff can or can't do.
"You need to know how your company will respond to things said online, who will monitor comment boards or who will ‘tweet' information from the company," she says.
The bottom line, says Rowland, is that employees need to realize that everything they post on the Internet lives on forever and can't be taken back.
"If you can't say it your supervisor's face, don't post it on Facebook," she says.