I recently overheard someone compare employees using social media sites to taking breaks for smoking at work.

As someone who has spent HR time in production and manufacturing environments, I am all-too-familiar with the battle employers face over smoke-break abuse. I remember when our company installed a card-reader on the smoking area door so employees had to swipe to get back in the building. We pulled the records to find one employee was visiting the smoking area an average 17 times daily for 7 – 10 minutes each time. That’s almost 3 hours per day of smoke breaks — while ON the clock!!! Unbelievable … And of course, we addressed that issue with that employee. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point is, after overhearing that comparison, I wondered: Is Social Media (SoMe) use at work the NEW Smoke Break (SBs)?

Yeah, it kind of is.

  • Like SBs, SoMe can create division. Employees connecting with some co-workers and not others may lead to hurt feelings, gossip and the appearance of impropriety or favoritism. Your workforce may divide into SoMe cliques, just like with Smokers and Non-Smokers. However, there’s also a lot of learning going on through SoMe that can help people be better at their jobs. Blog articles, free webinars and online networking groups are great things for employees to participate in.
  • Like SBs, SoMe can be a distraction and hindrance to productivity. Employees spending 5 – 10 minutes per hour perusing Facebook and Twitter can add up. The time away from the actual work area is more limited with SoMe because employees can check sites without leaving their desk. This makes multi-tasking easier — but it also makes it easier to goof off undetected and make errors.

Knowing this, I still say employers should allow Social Media use by employees. Just like Smokers are given a designated area and generally allowed extra breaks, Social Media users should also get considerationNeither habit is going anywhere — so employers have to manage it.

Here are a few things to remember:

  • Forbidding and blocking SoMe sites is not a management strategy. It is estimated 60% of cell phone users have smart phones. If sites are blocked, employees can just use their phone or tablet instead. Instead, leave sites open — but protect your network with good antivirus software and firewalls. Another option is to provide wifi and open computer stations in your employee lounge so employees can take SoMe breaks.
  • Have a Social Media usage policy. Yes, another policy. When text message, Facebook and Twitter conversations are being used as evidence in workplace disputes, you need to have guidelines for employees’ online behavior. The policy cannot forbid and should not discourage SoMe use — but it should definitely remind and encourage employees to be mindful about what they post and to guard their online reputation. And it should let employees know that online behavior in violation of the company’s standards of conduct or policy on harassment, bullying, etc may be grounds for disciplinary action.
  • Address abuses directly. When an employee is spending too much work time on SoMe sites — even if it is for their betterment — you should counsel them about it. Work with the employee to better manage their time.

Social media is here to stay, whether your organization has embraced it or not. Until the company decides its own strategy, there should be a way to ensure employees can use it — without abuse, overuse or misuse.