In response to the growth of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, companies are now establishing policies for employees that range from no access whatsoever to completely free rein.

Employees of Horry County are not allowed access at all, for example; neither are employees at the PGBA office near Surfside Beach. Other companies, such as the Brandon Agency, have embraced the latest technology and encourage employees to learn all they can.

"One of the reasons there's so many differences in the way social media policies are written is it really should fit the business you are in and the way you want business," said Alison Davis, the CEO of Davis & Company, which helps companies shape communications policies and trains them how to deal with social media.

A lot of companies try to put together a balanced social media policy, she said.

"Even before going to the middle ground, one of the discussions we have is, 'What's your company's culture, your company's communication culture?' " Davis said.

Social networking policies will continue to evolve. When telephones were first introduced into the workplace, great concern arose over a potential loss of productivity, and personal calls were prohibited. That ban on personal phone calls has become unrealistic in a way that some social networking bans may one day be as well, she said.

Business purposes only

About 54 percent of companies completely prohibit social networking sites at work, according to a recent survey developed by Robert Half Technology.

The study, based on phone interviews with more than 1,400 chief information officers nationwide, also found that 19 percent of companies allow access to the sites for business use only, with 16 percent allowing access for limited personal use and 10 percent permitting any type of personal use. An additional 1 percent did not know or provided no answer.

Productivity seems to be the key motivator for companies with the strictest no-access policies.

At PGBA, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina subsidiary, employees are not given Internet access unless a supervisor deems it necessary for that person's job, said Billy Quarles, the spokesman for the company. And for whose with Internet access, Facebook and Twitter are blocked.

"The policy we have is just that the Internet and all computers are to be used for business purposes only," he said.

Horry County has a similar policy that blocks access to social networking sites for almost all employees. Certain departments, such as law enforcement, may have access depending on their needs.

"You're supposed to be doing county business. That's your job, and we will help to do that," said Lisa Bourcier, the county's public information officer. "The computers are government property. The purpose of the computers are to facilitate your duties."

The current policy states: "Employees shall not use the County's computer system, including electronic mail, internet and information systems, for personal use. These systems shall be used for County business only." The county is in the process of revising the technology policy, but Bourcier said she couldn't speak about it until it was complete.

"[The county] doesn't see any value in people engaged in social media while at work," Davis said. "In other organizations, they may say it's OK, because it does have some value."

There are many risks involved in allowing employees to use social media, including productivity loss, security problems and possibly reputation damage if an employee posts something that reflects negatively on a company, Davis said.

'You have to be using it'

Certain businesses, especially marketing and consulting firms that want to promote the talent of their people, tend to allow the most freedom, she said.

"As an integrated marketing agency, we are on these sites several times a day," said Erin Barrett, the director of public relations at the Brandon Agency, which has about 30 full-time employees.

Everyone who works at the company is expected to understand social media and be able to implement advertising campaigns using Facebook and Twitter, she said.

"To understand how it works you have to be using it," Barrett said.

She said the company hasn't had to deal with any problems with improper use of the sites or people missing deadlines because they were looking at pictures of friends.

Realistically, people are going to check in on their personal accounts from time to time, she said, but the company allows it as long as it doesn't interfere with performance, she said.

"We don't want to deter people. I guess we would not want the fear to override the importance of understanding the social media channels and their importance in marketing today."

Hatton Gravely, who works in marketing at McCaffery Interests, said that she does check her personal Facebook account from work, in addition to updating the company's pages.

"I can see how it would be a problem if you aren't a disciplined person, but our office is so small that that would never be an issue where someone was able to spend a lot of time doing personal things," she said.

The company doesn't have any rules about social media use, said Gravely, who regularly uses Facebook as she promotes events for The Market Common.

"We all work very hard so we're all trusted not to be wasting the company time while we're here," she said.

Gary Henderson, who owns Interactivity Marketing, a small company with four employees, said his philosophy is "as long as you get your job done, I don't care what you do."

There have been a few occasions where he has had to tell his employees to spend a little less time on social networking sites, but most of the time they use the tools constructively and stay productive, he said.

"I've been in environments where they tell you, dictate, what you can and can't do," Henderson said. "Most of the time when you give someone some freedom, they don't abuse it."

In one case, his employee used a Facebook conversation for inspiration after hitting a road block, so the tools are useful for more than just outreach, he said.

Constantly evolving

There are also employers that are trying to find a way to balance the potential benefits of social networking sites with their downsides.

At Horry County Schools, teachers are allowed to access social networking sites only after entering a user name and password. The computer system logs each visit and the amount of time spent on the site, said Ashley Gasperson, the digital communications coordinator for the schools.

"We've been on the cautious end of things with it," she said. "We see them as benefits when used appropriately and correctly."

Some teachers are starting to use social networks to communicate with students and in the past year, the school has adjusted policy to require teachers to create accounts separate from their personal accounts to use for school-related activities, Gasperson said.

"That's the expectation we've shared with our staff," she said. "So they are not crossing that line of personal and business."

The overall policy for the school system is that Facebook and Twitter should be used for educational purposes only, said Edward Boyd, the chief accountability and information officer for Horry County Schools.

If a person violates the acceptable Internet use policy, they will face consequences ranging from a verbal reprimand to potentially being fired, though that has never happened.

Most of the companies said that their technology policies are constantly evolving and as baby boomers retire and the work force gets younger there will likely be more changes to come.

"If you have an organization with a lot of baby boomers and Gen Xers, it's pretty easy to manage social media," Davis said. "[For] organizations with a lot of Millenials I think it really does damage morale if you're too restrictive."

 


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