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The pros and cons of social networking at work.

The pros and cons of social networking at work

What do you think of social networking? Is it a valuable tool through which your employees can tell their friends and acquaintances about the benefits of your product or service and of working for your company? Or is it at best a waste of your employees' time and at worst a tool that could destroy the reputation of your business?

There is, of course, no common view on these questions. That is why some firms encourage their employees to spend work time catching up on, and contributing to, the latest gossip on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, while others ban the use of social networks at the office entirely.

In volume 19, issue 8 of Managing Information, Joanne Rogers considers both sides of the argument.

Social networking, she says, can be used for marketing, expanding commercial reach and advertising. The only tangible cost is the time needed to maintain the account. Used appropriately, social-networking sites can allow easy communication with existing business contacts and connections to be forged with new ones. Moreover, a regularly updated online presence can benefit the company's reputation, reinforcing the brand image and demonstrating awareness of current trends.

In addition, claims Joanne Rogers, social networking provides the potential to reach new areas at little or no expense. It can also help the company to build and maintain relationships between leaders and employees, and so reinforce a high-performing company culture.

There are, though, numerous drawbacks. The author points out that employees can easily leak confidential information, which can then lie around indefinitely. Careless use of social-networking sites could lead to the inadvertent downloading of malware or spyware, or even the hijacking of the account. Moreover, there is a threat of exposure to offensive web content through links contained in e-mails, posts and tweets.

Research by Hope Koch, Ester Gonzalez and Dorothy Leidner, published in volume 21 issue 6 of European Journal of Information Systems reveals that social-networking sites blur the boundary between work and social life. This creates positive emotions for employees who use the system. Those who do not, meanwhile, can experience isolation, frustration and resentment.

The authors conclude that using social-networking sites at work can improve employee morale, increase employee engagement and even reduce employee turnover.

The benefits of social-networking sites can be particularly significant for human-resource managers. Twitter, for example, is a useful platform for alerting people to vacancies, while the full range of social-networking sites can be employed to give potential employees a taste of what it is like to work for the firm.

In the November 2012 issue of People Management, Emma De Vita explains how one HR manager is blogging about the ideas he is generating in his research about organizational behavior. Another, more controversially, blogs to amuse people with his accounts of corporate life.

Joanne Rogers concludes the companies need to establish a level of control that protects the firm while not threatening the informality at the heart of social networking. Business information should be classified so that employees know what is sensitive and should not be mentioned on profiles or in posts. Employees should be taught what is acceptable, and what is not, when using social media, and the disciplinary consequences of crossing the line.

Social networking is evolving quickly. Keeping up with the latest developments can, at times, seem about as difficult as nailing a jellyfish to the ceiling. But companies have got to make the effort.

The potential rewards - in terms of better reputation and higher sales - are significant. And the dangers of not doing so - such as the potential leakage of confidential information and damage to the brand- could put the very future of the business in jeopardy.