The virtual flood gates have been opened and social networking is rushing in from the personal lives of employees and into the workplace - bringing a host of concerns along with it.
Facebook is no longer restricted to the realm of college students, and LinkedIn is specifically designed for the professional world.
While some companies are banning these networks from the workplace outright, others are timidly wading into the fray to use the networks as a communications tool, experts say.
While providing another way to connect with employees, potential recruits, and a wider community, social networks have a downside. Information posted could fall into the wrong hands, and if those with malicious intent collect enough sensitive information about a company, it could mean big trouble.
We talked to experts about how companies and employees can stay safe when using Facebook and LinkedIn.
Outright ban vs. moderate use?
Many businesses ban the use of social networks in the workplace entirely, worried that employees will be distracted from work or even post confidential company information.
But that might not be the best approach, according to Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's Privacy Commissioner.
"A ban will just drive people to find underground ways to use these sites," she warns. "I think a prescribed story on their use is more appropriate." Try setting time restrictions on when employees can access their social profiles, she recommends. For example, limit its use to the lunch break.
Old-fashioned policies established to deal with what information can be made public won't cut it anymore, says Dimitri Sirota, vice-president of marketing at Vancouver-based XML security vendor Layer 7 Technologies.
For instance, many companies rely on software to block email sent out with confidential information. While this strategy may work with email, it doesn't prevent confidential information from being posted on the web.
"I've never seen anyone successfully regulate what their employees post on Facebook," Sirota says. "Companies need to be vigilant, but it is very hard to prevent people from posting things if they want to post it," he says.
For companies very concerned with keeping on top of their information, Sirota suggests hiring an outside service to monitor the web for confidential data being posted to social networking sites.
But Facebook has found its use at an ad-hoc level within organisations, he adds. The group feature is used by company employees to organise social events.
There could even be a publicity benefit from using a Facebook group to attract wider interest in your company, Cavoukian says. Just be aware that you will be judged based on what you post to your page.
"If you expand your message around your company beyond what you offer to more of a lifestyle interest... that's a good strategy to try and attract individuals to be interested in your page," the privacy commissioner says.
The group feature even allows an organisation to control what content is posted to the page, she notes. But don't have too heavy a hand when editing posted content, or users will be turned off from the community.
Ways for employees to keep safe
LinkedIn is a popular website in business circles for its more professional bent, as opposed to Facebook's consumer focus. But that doesn't mean LinkedIn users are any safer from having their personal data lifted by fraudsters.
Users should be selective about who they add to their network on LinkedIn and only add people they know in real life, says Krista Canfield, public relations manager at LinkedIn. After all, it's not a popularity contest.
"Networking is more of a quality game than it is a numbers game," she says. "The people that will help you secure a job, find a great client, give you a recommendation for a potential employee are [those] that you truly know and have the best working relationships with."
Users should be aware that spammers are migrating to social networking sites more often, she adds. Try sending a contact to someone you've never met in person - instead of an invitation to connect - as a less obtrusive way to reach out.
Cavoukian's office has partnered with Facebook to produce user educational materials such as a tip sheet, and a new video that will be released this Fall. Users need to think about privacy settings on their profiles, she says.
"Most people don't know that you can lock down your privacy on Facebook if you want to. Facebook has very strong privacy measures, but most people don't know about them."
Remember prospective employers are now using Facebook to investigate potential recruits, Cavoukian adds. It is best to be sparing with the information offered rather than uploading your life's story.
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