The big ban on employees accessing Facebook

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.

Quite.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Amanda Chapel

    Neville,

    You’re experimenting. You REALLY appreciate companies that are similarly experimenting as it especially helps rationalize your endeavors. And companies that have judiciously concluded that the experiment is a flop have GOT TO BE WRONG.

    It is pretty apparent that you are smarter than those companies Neville. Overwhelming majority be damned.

    – Amanda

  2. neville

    “Judiciously concluded” Amanda? Doubtful. A “flop”? I don’t think so. Or do you have some kind of insider knowledge that no one else has?

    I don’t think blanket restrictions are smart either, Dennis. And I’d say it won’t be stopped (not the same as can’t).

    Isn’t this a similar situation to one we saw couple of years ago when everyone discovered blogging? Stories abounded of companies forbidding employee access to particular domains. Some companies still enforce such prohibitions.

    Not smart.

  3. Banning Facebook in business is futile « AccMan

    […] Neville Hobson points to reports from the Daily Telegraph indicating that: […] 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. […]

  4. Shel Holtz

    Every new technology leads the “overwhelming majority” to go through the same steps without regard for history. One example: the web itself. Initially, it was banned; you had to get special permission (in writing) to be able to access the web from work. Now most companies have web access for all employees. Another example: Instant Messaging. At one point few companies allowed it; the rest perceived it as nothing more than a new way for employees to waste time. Today, more than half the workers in the U.S. use IM for work purposes. There was a time when companies didn’t let their employees participate in discussion forums; then they realized that forums on topics like engineering actually produced positive business results. There are more examples.

    Today it’s social networks, until companies realize that networking can produce tremendous value, at which point companies will establish policies and let employees participate. A year from now it’ll be whatever’s next.

    Being part of the majority is no guarantee you’re right.

  5. Amanda Chapel

    See… there it is again. You are smarter than all those seasoned managers at all those companies, the majority of companies in fact. Just like those who say that the CEOs of 95 percent of the Fortune 500 who smartly choose not to blog are wrong. You’re smarter that all those CEOs, too, I bet. Just like when Shel said, “Screw the owners. Customers come first…. Decisions made with shareholders top-of-mind are often very, very bad decisions.” You guys are unbelievably smart. On another planet kinda smart. I’m guessing that other planets will want to pay you handsomely.

    – Amanda

  6. Andrew

    Surely, you can’t be surprised that companies would ban Facebook. It is very easy to work in a small company and affect sweeping changes overnight with respect to social media, but when you work for a 49K employee behemoth, teaching everyone the benefit of social media and how to use it without inadvertently disclosing confidential information, might take a bit longer.

    If you run a network worth 10’s of milllions of $’s, and your job was on the line if you compromise security, I am sure the first thing you would do would be to ban something before your boss or senior management have come up with a policy on how it will be used and monitored.

    The disconnect between IT and Executive decision makers (generally approaching retirement) is quite large in most organizations. Ironically a tool like Facebook could shrink that gap most effectively. Bit of a Catch 22 isn’t it..

  7. Shel Holtz

    Amanda, Amanda. What does it mean when all those “seasoned managers” end up changing their minds and their policies in a year once they realize their knee-jerk reactions were misguided? Email, the web, instant messaging, message boards…we’ve been there and done that. But I suppose, based on your way of thinking, we should ignore the lessons of history and make no observation when we observe the same mistakes being repeated yet again.

    And when did either of us ever suggest blanketly that CEOs should blog? While I do believe it is often in a CEO’s best interest to blog internally (to engage with employees and establish strong line-of-sight), whether a CEO blogs externally should be based entirely on a strategic planning process that begins with identifying a critical business goal that must be achieved. In most cases, I would bet a CEO blog would NOT be the right solution. And even in those cases where it might be a good solution, the CEO would have to be the right person to blog (that is, write decently and have something to say).

    Finally, the “customers come first” philosophy has been incredibly effective where it has been applied. Ask Tylenol. It is a commonly accepted philosophy that if you take good care of your customers, the shareholders will be well served, but if you make kneejerk decisions based on worry about what shareholders will think without regard for the impact on customers, both customers AND shareholders will suffer.

  8. Amanda Chapel

    – “What does it mean when all those “seasoned managers” end up changing their minds and their policies in a year once they realize their knee-jerk reactions were misguided? Email, the web, instant messaging, message boards…we’ve been there and done that. But I suppose, based on your way of thinking, we should ignore the lessons of history and make no observation when we observe the same mistakes being repeated yet again.”

    Your being smarter aside for a moment… fact is, corporate control of communications tools are increasing not decreasing. “According to recent statistics, however, 80 percent of all security issues are now initiated from the inside

    – meaning by employees and other trusted insiders. Such security issues cover a broad range of careless or criminal usage of data. The well-established email protection tools of today (virus and spam filters) do not take into consideration the reality of today’s threat level.” (See http://tinyurl.com/2v5bmv .)

    – “And when did either of us ever suggest blanketly that CEOs should blog?”

    I said, “Just like those who say that the CEOs of 95 percent of the Fortune 500 who smartly choose not to blog are wrong.” The point is that your “smarter than” is perfectly aligned with all the other “smarter than” zealots.

    – “Finally, the “customers come first” philosophy has been incredibly effective where it has been applied.”

    Give me specific samples and I can give you volumes and history where owners first has been most profitable.

    Profit aside, however… It is the owners’ legal prerogative to either enhance their property or not. Owners first is the system. Of course, that only again underscore that you, Neville and friends are smarter than the system.

  9. Christopher Johnston

    I work at a hospital that recently blocked Facebook. I only found 20 or 30 employees on Facebook when I could still access it. I’m rather upset that they blocked it because it has become my preferred portal to my other networks. I can always go through a bypass proxy I guess.

  10. Harold Gilchrist

    The best thing about the blogosphere is that it is mainly distributed. Anyone can start one and anyone can distribute their blog under their own domain. This design virtually makes it an incredible effort to shut any large portion of the blogosphere down.

    Facebook on the otherhand puts everyone (media and consumer) under one walled garden. This design makes it soooo easy for anyone to disrupt or shut the whole domain and all of Facebook conversations down.

    Content filtering vendors are already categorizing all of these social neteworks in to one nice group to make denial of access behind corporate firewall one little check box.

    One flick of a switch, one simple check box in a corporate firewall and all of Facebook and other social networks are unaccessible from anyone’s corporate desktop and notebook. And you know what, there is not a thing that any outsider of the corporation can do about it.

    I am sure it won’t be long before the mass media jumps on a “social network – waste of work time meme”.

    At that point, Facebook and the social networks will see the speed of unaccessiblity start to kick into high gear.

  11. neville

    No, I’m not surprised, Andrew, that some companies are banning employees from using sites like Facebook. I guess I am surprised at the scale of it – more than 70 per cent of businesses, according to a survey the Telegraph mentions. (The Telegraph doesn’t say what the survey was or who conducted it and I can’t find any online reference to it.)

    I understand the concerns you mention re confidentiality and security. Valid ones, unquestionably.

    It seems to me, though, that blanket prohibition on access, and employees being threatened with losing their job if they somehow do access Facebook, etc, while at work, is a gross over-reaction to perceived threats to confidentiality and security. In effect, it’s saying that employees cannot be trusted at all.

    I agree, though, with your view re a prevalence of banning something before the boss or senior management have come up with a policy. I know of two particular organizations (large global companies) where that situation existed until the people concerned actually got together to talk about social computing and what needed to be done to address the issues and find a solution that everyone could live with (if not be happy with). Still an ongoing process. One of the drivers for change was grassroots employee pressure including risks/benefits presented by employee groups who had already been informally experimenting.

    Nice Catch 22 analogy!

  12. Sam Grant

    My friends at British Airways are exceedingly active on Facebook – and in their own time since BA banned access to the site. In fact some of them have done a fantastic job of defending BA’s reputation against critics, with informed and coherent arguments posted on the site.

    It’s also interesting to see BA’s cabin crew using Facebook to establish a strong sense of community and teamwork amongst a diffuse workforce, connecting with colleagues whom they may only see occasionally when shifts coincide.

    It will take time for the business benefits of sites like Facebook to be realised. It will come when employers see that:

    1. conversations about their organisations are happening anyway – and often amongst valued customers whom they are not engaging with (and may be about to lose), and

    2. employees can be their most powerful means of ensuring that the facts about their business, rather than the fiction, are the subject of those discussions.

  13. Amanda Chapel

    The two biggest misleading rationales in social media: 1) the conversations are happening anyway; 2) employee en mass are you be advocates.

    Nonsense. 1) “Conversations” have always been happening and we have always managed them (that’s our job). 2) Uncontrolled multitudinous spokespeople is the recipe for disaster and tantamount to institutional Turrettes.

    Unmanaged distributed asymmetric communications is the Tower of Babble not PR.

    – Amanda

  14. Amanda Chapel

    David,

    Great analogy. And companies failed to totally control it because they couldn’t quite track it. Well guess what… now they can… and they will.

    Bottom line: all this stuff will be allowed if there’s a business case and not some loosy goosy zealot crap. And there’s not a chance in hell companies are going to let their employees en mass play on the highway with their IP. Silly to think otherwise.

    – Amanda

  15. david brain

    Hi Amanda,

    Sure we can track calls if we wanted to. Easy peesy. But WE don’t . . but some do. And I guess some firms will want to track social media for some employees for reasons you mention, but I think it will be more complicated than blanket acceptance or blanket banning.

  16. neville

    Some undoubtedly because they couldn’t track it, Amanda. Many, though, because they realized that more can be gained by seeing how to allow different means of communication than preventing it.

    Sam, interesting to learn about BA, thanks for that info.

  17. Amanda Chapel

    Agreed.

    The original point was that some companies have already concluded that there’s marginal upside and HUGE downside to all this. Well, that’s the trend.

    The bar has been raised. Zealots can not longer get away with saying they’re smarter than 95 percent of the Fortune 500. They’ve got to make a genuine business case; and frankly, NO ONE is doing that. I do not know a single zealot who can.

  18. Amanda Chapel

    CLARIFICATION: Was agreeing with David. Neville apparently we were posting simultaneously.

    Neville… NO ONE… NOT ONE CEO EVER… thought that abuse of the company phone system to make personal calls was “because they realized that more can be gained by seeing how to allow different means of communication.” That’s ludicrous.

  19. Amanda Chapel

    Neville,

    Try, “I know you are but what am I.” I think that captures the essence of your counter argument.

    Listen, it’s simple: Non business in a business setting is a cost. To spin it as some amorphous benefit is ludicrous. Period.

    Neville, I know you folks are having fun with your toys. I know how “cool” it is to pretend that all these strangers are your “friends.” I know how much you have invested in this crap and to backpedal now seems futile. I know you think you’re smarter… BUT they’ve got the money. They own the institutions. They are going to do what makes sense in their world to expand and foster their property in their world.

    That’s all.

    – Amanda

  20. FaceBook versus LinkedIn For Business

    […] Many people are thinking about FaceBook differently than they do about LinkedIn. Others are concerned with how much time they suck up and how to manage it. According to the Telegraph, over 70 percent of businesses in the U.K. have blocked Facebook from within their company. […]

  21. neville

    It seems pretty clear to me that people in companies who put sweeping prohibitions and restrictions in place on technology tools are not acting in the best interests of the organization as a whole. Certainly not if they do this without weighing up the pros and cons of the tools concerned, looking at potential advantages as well as perceived disadvantages.

    Not only that, short-sightedness with blanket prohibitions just drives people underground, so to speak, so some will find other ways to continue using websites they want to that don’t involve a corporate network. There are plenty of ways.

    In any case, this will be moot within a year, I reckon, which is about as long as it took before similar arguments against blogging died down as more organizations realized the common sense in developing conditions and guidelines for employee usage.

  22. Amanda Chapel

    – “It seems pretty clear to me that people in companies who put sweeping prohibitions and restrictions in place on technology tools are not acting in the best interests of the organization as a whole.”

    Obviously, because you are smarter than them Neville. :(

    – “Certainly not if they do this without weighing up the pros and cons of the tools concerned.”

    They have and you cannot accept that apparently.

    – “Not only that, short-sightedness with blanket prohibitions just drives people underground, so to speak, so some will find other ways to continue using websites they want to that don’t involve a corporate network. There are plenty of ways.”

    Read that again. That captures it. You think it’s your desk. You think it’s your job. IT’S NOT!

    The simplest way around the rules imposed on someone else’s property, is to GET OFF THEIR PROPERTY!

    – “In any case, this will be moot within a year, I reckon, which is about as long as it took before similar arguments against blogging died down as more organizations realized the common sense in developing conditions and guidelines for employee usage.”

    And we are seeing that license erode. We are finding out that it is NOT necessarily a benefit. The trend is exactly THE opposite of what you characterize.

  23. neville

    You mention trends, Amanda. Care to share your research or sources of reference?

    If not, your input to the conversation in this post isn’t really going anywhere. So please add something meaningful to a continuation. Thanks.

  24. Amanda Chapel

    Forrester for starters: http://tinyurl.com/36cl82

    “Web 2.0 technologies are hitting the mainstream both in consumer and business contexts. Firms using Web 2.0 technologies are driven by gains in worker efficiency and a fear of competitive pressures. For non-adopters, a perceived lack of business value and priority impedes adoption; however, almost all of the CIOs that we surveyed recognized Web 2.0 as more than a passing fad. To capitalize on this burgeoning opportunity within firms, tech marketers will need to work hard to prove business value and should emphasize to prospects how clients are benefiting from Web 2.0 adoption in similar industries.“

    – a perceived lack of business value and priority impedes adoption;
    – tech marketers will need to work hard to prove business value.

    And how many CEO in the Fortune 500 are blogging?

    Bottom line: I don;t need to prove you are wrong. You need to prove you are right.

  25. neville

    Thanks for that link. I saw that report when it came out in March. Is it reporting a trend, though, in the context of what the conversation in this post is about? Or Forrester’s broad take on Web 2.0 in general?

    If that’s all you’ve got to support your subjective opinions, Amanda, it doesn’t really help your case.

  26. neville

    Ok, everyone, so let’s see if I can move this conversation along a bit.

    On one of the many other blog posts I’ve seen commenting on this broad Facebook issue, one written by Finnish blogger Erkko has this thoughtful comment

    […] Some companies just still don’t understand where the world is going, and want to continue to try and stop a full steam ahead moving train. […] We are moving (or more like have already moved) to a world where being connected and building a comprehensive network of social and business contacts that are continuously maintained through different online tools is a part of everyday life. This is also human nature, as we are still social beings, and these new tools such as Jaiku or Facebook, give us the means of staying in contact in more efficient and novel ways.

    Erkko works for Nokia. I wonder how they regard Facebook.

  27. Simon Wakeman

    It’s about people not the technology…

    Banning access to social networking websites just doesn’t make sense, especially when they’re not the root cause of a perceived problem.
    ……

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