U.S. companies trying to figure out how to deal with the proliferating use at work of social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Bebo may want to check the advice released Thursday by Britain's Trades Union Congress (TUC).
In a nutshell, the TUC is advising companies -- in Britain at least -- that the outright banning of such sites in the workplace may be something of an "overreaction." Instead, the group said, it's much better to cut employees some slack and focus on setting up formal policies for acceptable use of such sites in the workplace.
"Simply cracking down on use of new Web tools like Facebook is not a sensible solution to a problem [that] is only going to get bigger," warned TUC general secretary Brendan Barber in a statement.
While it's unacceptable for employees to spend hours at work on such sites, it is OK and even beneficial to trust them to spend a few minutes using the sites, the TUC said. "It's unreasonable for employers to try to stop their staff from having a life outside work, just because they can't get their heads around the technology," Barber said.
The TUC is a federation of 59 British trade unions representing more than 6.5 million workers.
The group's advice comes amid signs that a growing number of companies are looking to prevent employees from accessing social networking sites from work. A recent poll of 600 employees by security vendor Sophos showed 43 percent saying that their company was blocking access to Facebook. Another 7 percent said that use of the site is restricted and only those with a specific business requirement are allowed to access it.
Of the 50 percent who said their companies have not blocked access to Facebook, 8 percent believe their companies haven't done so because they fear a backlash from employees.
The main concern appears to be the potential impact on employee productivity that such sites have, Sophos said. But there also appears to be considerable concern that the information being posted by employees on Facebook could be used for espionage purposes or to somehow infiltrate corporate networks.
TUC spokesman John Wood said the organization decided to issue its guidance -- which is directed both at employers and employees -- because of the growing hype surrounding the use of Facebook in the workplace. "There's a bit of a panic here in the U.K. about Facebook," Wood said. With about 3.5 million registered users in the U.K., Facebook is becoming an increasingly popular social networking tool in Britain even as it is being banned in a growing number of workplaces, he said.
Much of the "hysteria" is the result of misplaced or uninformed concerns about the negative consequences of social networking sites at work, he said. "The issue that seems to be worrying employees is cyberslacking. But we don't see this as a particularly new phenomenon."
Employers in the past have shown a certain willingness to allow their employees to use the Web in their downtime, and there is no reason to change that attitude, he said. "They seem to be overreacting to this Facebook issue just because it's such a hyped story."
According to the TUC's guidance for employers, companies should recognize that the issue won't go away simply by banning Facebook from the workplace. The goal, instead, should be to have a clearly articulated and open "conduct policy" regarding the use of such sites, coupled with a hands-off approach to an employee's personal life. This is especially important given that the use of social networking sites is likely to become the norm -- especially among younger workers going forward, the TUC said.
"Actively engaging with an issue that is not going to go away is the best way to ensure that there are no unpleasant surprises for both employers and employees," it noted.