FT: Social Networking: It’s amazing what people will say . . .

On Facebook, the social networking site, an employee of a large retailer hits back at comments from appreciative customers: “well im glad u all think its so great, u should try working there, does my head in”.

The employee provides his name, a photo, and more details about his personal life than most people would want to know.

This may be harmless enough, but it is an example of the lack of caution that is causing companies to worry about Facebook and its like. Sometimes the incaution hits the headlines. UK retailer Argos fired an employee who was reported as telling the world on Facebook what he thought of his employer. Similarly, the company that runs the directory service 118 118 spent months trying to get Facebook to remove a page dedicated to insulting its customers.

At a different level, Google was embarrassed when Lauren Turner, who writes a Health Advertising blog for her employer, attacked Michael Moore’s film, Sicko, and suggested that Google’s advertisers take space to counter the damage.

And Dell’s legal counsel demanded that Consumerist.com, a blog-based website, remove a piece written by a former Dell employee. Consumerist.com said no, and Dell backed down, with its blog Dell2Dell (see main article) saying “we goofed”.

When linked to the (perceived) problem of employees wasting hours on social networking sites, it is not surprising that some companies have come to see them as the enemy. Lawyers often recommend their use be banned, while security software companies suggest – unsurprisingly – that they should be filtered with security software.

This, surely, is missing the point – the real issue is education. Companies need to educate themselves about social network sites, and they need to educate their employees about them.

Telling staff you do not trust them is, of course, an option. But better surely to point out that personal rants could damage them more than you, and that posting personal details puts them at serious risk from hackers. Then tell them how to increase the security settings on Facebook, and use traditional management techniques to keep them productive in the office.

Google’s blogger and Dell’s legal counsel need educating, too. They have to understand that the social network world means they must assume anything they write – online or offline – will be circulated, discussed and possibly ridiculed.

Employees need general guidelines – be careful, don’t be heavyhanded, don’t pretend you are someone else – and specific rules for the major platforms. Then let them use them. In fact, encourage them, because that is how they will most quickly learn the quirks and etiquettes of the different sites and channels.

In the mid-1990s the same arguments raged about whether employees should be allowed to look at the web in the office.

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