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Facebook at work: Employers worry about productivity

FARGO, N.D. - Jeff DeLoss, a business analyst at Noridian Administrative Services in Fargo, can't log on to Facebook at his work computer. Company policy does not allow access to social networking sites on company time.

"I guess I don't mind it," he said about the policy, "because I can see room for a lot of misuse on company time."

But at the bottom of work e-mails DeLoss receives from human resources staff, there is a link to "Find us on Facebook," intended for external recipients. When DeLoss tries to click on it from his work computer, he gets a message that access to the site is restricted.

This is just one example of the tough spot businesses find themselves in when it comes to social networking sites in the workplace.

These websites, which include Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn, can be powerful tools for marketing, recruiting and hiring. At the same time, they can be a big time waster for employees.

Companies that allow access to Facebook lose an average of 1.5 percent in total employee productivity, according to results of a study by Nucleus Research Inc., which provides investigative information technology research.

Of those accessing the site at work, 87 percent could not define a clear business reason to do so. The 2009 study also found that some employees used Facebook up to two hours a day at work.

In many ways, though, social networking sites are no different than the break room, water cooler or desk phone: potential distractions that need to be managed.

Productivity a concern

Several local businesses are considering policies and procedures dealing with employee access to social media, said Karen Witzel, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Human Resource Association.

Their biggest concern is employee productivity, she said.

Darrin Tonsfeldt, director of the Village Business Institute in Fargo, understands the concern about wasted employee time. He also can imagine other problems social networking sites could contribute to: cyber bullying, privacy and security concerns and a rift between technology savvy and clueless employees.

But Tonsfeldt increasingly believes employers need to find ways to use social media to their advantage.

"I think it's like trying to hold back tidal water. You're not going to hold it back," he said.

'Anxious discussions'

Some Red River Valley employers already have policies for social networking sites.

SEI, a call center services company in Grand Forks and Fargo, has never allowed access, said Michele Thiel, human resources manager for SEI and Ygomi, its parent company.

"We're looking at balancing productivity as well as bandwidth," Thiel said. "Quite a few people, if they feel they want to access Facebook, they do it on their personal cell phone. As long as they're productive and meet their job requirements, that's the main thing."

The rules are pretty loose at Fargo's Microsoft campus, said Katie Hasbargen, communications manager. Access is not blocked because it can be difficult to separate personal and business use of social media accounts.

"The basic overriding policy is: Be smart," Hasbargen said. "Make sure it's clear you're representing your own views and not the company's when making comments. Be mindful of what's proprietary and confidential."

MeritCare in Fargo allows internal access to social networking sites to employees whose work focuses on communication and collaboration, said Craig Hewitt, a senior vice president and chief technology officer for Sanford Health-MeritCare.

"We've got about 18,000 employees, and we probably allow access to a little under 1,000 folks," Hewitt said. "It's a fairly select group."

MeritCare is currently evaluating its policy, he said. "Those restrictions will be eased as we make sure we can protect the privacy of patients and secure access."

Hewitt said it's a matter of being realistic. Employees with Internet-capable cell phones can already access the sites, which are becoming a more popular way for employees to communicate.

"I think every technology, as it becomes available, probably goes through this same series of anxious discussions with folks who are in leadership positions," Hewitt said.

Harnessing the power

Business leaders and human resources professionals need to understand the influence of social media and how to harness it, said Ryan Estis, a Minneapolis-based speaker and business performance consultant.

Social media was part of a daylong workshop he recently offered in Fargo.

Estis believes companies that ban access to social media are missing out on an opportunity to create more connections.

"The reality is, the way to connect, communicate and collaborate in workplaces is undergoing a significant transformation," Estis said. "Fundamentally, people expect to be able to use these tools to connect and network."

Having a policy will provide employees with guidance on proper use of the sites during work hours.

Estis said 29 percent of U.S. companies have a policy governing social network sites, just as most companies have policies on the use of the Internet and e-mail. Based on anecdotal research, he believes about half of those companies ban access and half allow some or complete access to sites.

Having a written policy is key, said Witzel of the F-M human resource group.

"How can you do any sort of disciplinary action if you don't have your policy spelled out?" she asked.

Sara McGrane, a Minneapolis attorney originally from Fargo, recently gave a presentation to local human resources staff titled "Googling My Facebook Makes Me Twitter." Part of her presentation offered a sample policy that local companies could enact.

"In the last 18 months, we have had a dramatic increase in the number of questions we've gotten about social media," said McGrane, whose specialty is employment law.

The sample policy's wording respects the employee's right to use social media during nonwork hours, but demands that employees protect the privacy and reputation of the employer. Employees should have no expectation of privacy while using their work computers, the policy reads.

"I think a lot of people realize they're going to look at it," McGrane said. "We just have to limit the amount of time."

Social media plays role in hiring, firing

Another place where social media and the workplace intersect is its role in hiring, firing and discipline, said Sara McGrane, a Minneapolis employee who specializes in employment law.

Employers often look at Facebook profiles and other social media sites when they consider a job applicant. This can be a great reference check, McGrane said.

But employers have to be careful not to make decisions based on information the employee set as private, she said.

"If the information is publicly available and the employee puts it out there publicly, then the employer does have the right to use it," McGrane said.

But if the employer gains access to the information through a third party, the company may violate laws on electronic data.

"The person didn't want that information to be shared. In those instances, we tell employers not to consider it," she said.

McGrane's advice to employees: "Be careful who your friends are. If you're going to be friends with your boss, be aware they can use that information. As long as you didn't voluntarily give that person access, you're fine."

Here are some of the popular social networking websites:


Founded in February 2004. Claims more than 400 million active users who "friend" one another.


Launched in January 2004. Has more than

113 million monthly active users worldwide.


Microblogging site founded in 2006. Users post 140-character "tweets."


Professional network with more than 65 million members. Founded in May 2003.

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