Social Networking Sites and Privacy in the Workplace

Consider the following scenario: The sales team at a large software company is meeting with a particularly hot prospect and is hoping to seal the deal on a big sale of Product X. Things have been going great, but right in the middle of the meeting someone pulls out a printout of a message board posting where Donny Developer (who worked on Product X) decries the failures and inadequacies of Product X. Caught totally unprepared by the posting, the sale falls through.

Public and private sector organizations are becoming increasingly concerned with avoiding situations just like this involving employees using social networking sites (SNS). The use of web sites like Facebook, Twitter, blogs and message boards exposes them to risks of employees leaking secrets, embarrassing themselves (and the organization by association) and adversely affecting legal matters. Yet, the potential benefits of employees using these sites have led many organizations to embrace the new technologies rather outlawing them. SNS allow people to become active contributors to their job community, and also can get feedback on work in progress and promote the company to an employee’s friends. Beyond that, many of the sites are just fun to use and can foster a good work environment.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada recently issued a fact sheet entitled “Privacy and Social Networking in the Workplace” and wrote a corresponding blog post about it. The posting in particular emphasizes the need for organizations to draft clear SNS policies laying out what is acceptable use and how the organization monitors and enforces it. The posting notes that several organizations like Sun, IBM, the New Zealand public service and the UK public service have already issued good guidelines on use but so far haven’t articulated the consequences for misuse or the degree to which employees’ SNS accounts will be watched.

As SNS become even more prevalent and inevitably develop into yet-unthought of modes of communication, it will be interesting to watch how organizations treat their employees’ privacy. The risk with strictly controlling what employees say over SNS is that an organization might miss out on the real power of the web – interactivity. By somewhat exposing an organization’s workings to the public it can actually build credibility and ultimately improve the organization’s products. When drafting SNS guidelines and policies organizations will need to be careful to both protect their interests while ensuring to not discourage employees from using new web technologies to their full potential.