The big ban on employees accessing Facebook

Earlier this month, in FIR #254, Shel and I discussed quite an interesting story of what one company did regarding employee access to and use of Facebook.

That story, of the law firm Allen and Overy’s Facebook U-turn, is a good example of how a company listened to employees and enabled them to conditionally use the social networking site.

It seems, though, that A&O are very much in a minority with their eventual but realistic approach to such sites, as prohibiting and preventing employee access to them may be far more prevalent than you think.

The Daily Telegraph reports on what’s happening among quite a number of UK firms and organizations:

[…] More than two thirds of employers are banning or restricting the use of Facebook and similar sites over fears that staff are wasting time on them when they should be working, a survey found. Several companies have also warned employees that accessing the site during office hours is a sackable offence.

More than 70 per cent of businesses, including banks and law firms, have barred the sites. City firms are taking the lead, with Credit Suisse and Dresdner Kleinwort both banning employees from accessing them. But “Faceblocking” is spreading.

The Metropolitan Police, British Gas and Lloyds TSB are using internet filters that prevent sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and Hotmail from being viewed at work.

This strikes me as extremely short-sighted and illustrative of a great lack of understanding by those who make decisions (often, IT people) as to the nature of how people want to make connections with others in our tightly networked world of today, as well as the blurring for many people between what are business and what are social connections.

And here’s what a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police had to say in the Telegraph’s story:

“Access to some websites is blocked as there is no business need for employees to access them. Facebook is one of those sites,” he said. “Access to blocked sites is granted when required for business needs only.”

That is probably representative of much of the thinking in organizations who do impose strict prohibitions on employee access to sites like Facebook.

It’s not only in the UK, either, according to TechCrunch:

Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company, has banned its approximately 49,000 employees from using Facebook. As Cameron Reilly at G’Day World puts it, “This would be a retarded move for ANY company, let alone a company that is trying to position itself as a company that “gets” online.”

I wouldn’t suggest any organization simply has a free-for-all approach where anything goes on the internet. In the organizational context, you have to have some clear guidance in place where everyone knows what the ground rules are.

In any case, who’s deciding what a business need is? If I look at my own list of friends in Facebook, some 150 people, close to 90 percent of those are people I’ve connected with originally from a business perspective. Some of those people have become friends socially.

My example may not be typical, but I value Facebook as a place to build both my business and my social connections. I bet there are employees in any of the organizations mentioned here who do the same (but from home, not on the workplace network).

Rather than have sweeping prohibitions in place, enforced by Orwellian behaviours with technology, it would make far more sense to try and understand the changing nature of relationship development today and consider ways that will enable employees to use sites like Facebook. There is a business benefit.

Ask Microsoft (who has 17,500 employees on Facebook), or Siemens (apparently with 6,000 employees on Facebook). They know something you need to find out.

Guidelines, policies, call them what you want, it doesn’t seem that difficult really if you put your mind to it.

[Later Edit] Shel has a post in which he outlines the problems with blocking employee access to anything on the web, saying: Establish and communicate policies governing what employees can and cannot do online.