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Legal report: labour & employment - Marketing tool or time waster?

|Written By Heather Capannelli

Some workplaces ban access to online social networking sites but others choose to educate and trust their workers not to abuse or fritter away time with them, and maybe even use them as a marketing tool.

Say goodbye to the fishbowl of business cards, the early morning meet-and-greets over stale croissants and burnt coffee, and the glad-handing happy hours. Social networks are the power breakfasts of the new millennium, the newest way to make contacts you might not otherwise be able to make, and like it or not, they’re here to stay. Every day, social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube are on the screens of millions of people worldwide while they’re at school, at home, and yes — at work.

Each visitor on Facebook, for example, spends an average of 186 minutes there, and that number is going up. But aside from the productivity lost due to employees continuously visiting these sites, there are some real pitfalls — like breach of corporate confidentiality and workplace harassment — for employers who either don’t know, or don’t care, that their workers are using social networks in the workplace.

Most social network services are web-based and offer a variety of ways for users to communicate with each other: chatting, instant messaging, e-mailing, blogging, and file sharing. With little more than an e-mail address, users create a profile for themselves that offers as much or as little information as they want, including photos and video. Once the profile is created, users invite others to “be friends,” which allows for the creation of groups that share common interests or affiliations. The idea is to try to be linked to as many “friends” as possible, making it common for users to get requests to be friends with people they do not otherwise know. Herein lie both the infinite networking opportunities, and the vortex of time well wasted.

“They’re called social networking sites  because they were intended to be social,” says Lisa Goodfellow, a partner with Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP’s national employment and labour group. “So, it’s a matter of policy from one workplace to another as to whether you’re going to let people use these sites.” As counsel to employers in a wide range of employment and labour relations matters, she says employers are justified in putting more stringent guidelines in place regarding internet use on company time, but it’s equally important to gauge just how much they want to interfere.

Given the addictive nature of sites like Facebook and MySpace, and the sheer amount of time that can be eaten up by employees planning their weekend activities and searching for old friends, there are some employers who simply block employee access to these sites. This was the step taken by the Ontario government this past May when it barred government staff from accessing the Facebook site from their workplace computers. At the time, Premier Dalton McGuinty was quoted as saying he couldn’t see how the site added value to a workplace environment.

In an employment context, one of the main concerns in allowing workers to use social networks is discrimination. A typical situation, Goodfellow says, might be one where several co-workers are griping about an employee who’s not pulling his or her weight, without perhaps knowing that the worker is on a course of modified work due to a disability. The co-workers post distasteful or derogatory comments about their colleague on a social network, and they are available for any “friend” who is networked into the page to see. This can create a poisoned work environment for the employee, with problems escalating from there.

Other scenarios might involve co-workers venting on a chat or discussion board about their boss or discussing work-related projects where confidential information might be shared inadvertently. But interestingly enough, these indiscretions are usually reported to management by fellow employees who may, in turn, be slighted at some point themselves. “I think that one of the things that is not changing is the rule about what is acceptable conduct,” says Goodfellow. “The offensive messages are being viewed by a wider audience, maybe further than the author intended, and there’ a record of it.”  So as the saying goes, if you can’t say anything nice, better to not say anything at all.

Another way to handle internet use by employees, and one Goodfellow suggests is more pro-active on the part of employers, is to educate employees as to what they deem to be acceptable uses for the internet while on company time. “If you have a good group of employees and no signs that people are taking advantage of that, you don’t have to go to overkill,” says Goodfellow. It’s up to decision-makers to review current company policies, and keep everyone abreast of what is considered acceptable conduct.

Michael Geist agrees. As the Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, Geist says that trust is possible. “We face the same issue now around how people use technology to watch movies and listen to music. The first thing was to block all access, but what I thought was more effective was a reminder of company policies.”  Calling it “old wine in a new bottle,” Geist points out that corporations have been grappling with the issue of personal computer use on company time for at least a decade. In addition, he says there are positive uses for social media networks in the workplace; it just depends on what kind of workplace it is.

Toronto lawyer Garry J. Wise considers his workplace the appropriate venue for social media. So much so that he uses a Facebook page himself to spread breaking legal news and to maintain contact with clients and colleagues. “The inspiration really came from our articling student,” says Wise. “She was a visionary about its applications in our firm, for maintaining contacts with our clients and prospects. Facebook has ultimately become a database of contacts.” Wise says it’s an effortless and entirely free way of maintaining your client pool, and suggests that firms resistant to this kind of technological change are “missing the boat.”

The firm’s Facebook page was launched early this year, and Wise says he was very selective about the clients he added. “Judiciously I added certain clients as ‘friends’ along with other people. Very quickly I learned that a lot were already [on Facebook].” While it’s certainly not the main component of Wise’s marketing strategy, using a social network has allowed him to solidify existing client relationships and stay “top of mind” to prospects and other lawyers he hopes to work more closely with.

As to putting a formal policy in place at his firm on the use of the internet and social media during business hours, Wise maintains they operate on a trust system. “We’ve never felt the need to have a firmly stated policy. Yes, employees can do things and waste time, but they don’t need the internet for that.” He says he is confident in saying that no one in his office would overuse the internet “. . . except maybe me.”