You've seen it: During a moment of "down time," an employee is clicking around on a social networking site - and there you are, unsure what you should do about it.Many firms, it seems, aren't sure either. Yet most clearly acknowledge that the Internet has changed the way business is conducted and now, with the popularity of social networking, to say communication styles are evolving is an understatement.

Instant messaging within offices, sharing contacts and resources through LinkedIn, and recruiting through Facebook and YouTube have all brought growth to many firms, yet a lot of questions, such as how to monitor usage of these mediums, remain unanswered.

A recent survey found that despite the growing popularity of social networking sites, one in four companies is blocking access to them because they are viewed as a productivity killer.

The survey, released in July and conducted by Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a global outplacement and business coaching firm, polled approximately 200 human resources professionals and found that 59 percent of companies do not have a formal policy regarding the use of social networking sites at the office. Nearly half of those surveyed said that social networking sites are not a problem as long as employees' work gets done.

Interestingly, while companies do not view social networking as a threat to productivity, one in three survey respondents said that their companies consider the sites a major drain on worker output. Some 23 percent of companies block access to these sites entirely.

"We don't ban anything outright," said Susan Lewis, sales and marketing manager at TravisWolff Independent Advisors & Accountants in Dallas. "We have a fairly standard policy that technology should be used for business purposes. It has not come up at this point as being an issue."

LinkedIn and Facebook seem to be the most popular networking sites used among accounting firms; however, there are a plethora of other options available to anyone who is looking. Twitter, for example, is a way for an individual or company to keep others in their network updated on their daily happenings.

TravisWolff started experimenting with Twitter and found that it's a way to keep up with industry news and notify clients - who are subscribers - of newsworthy items. The catch is these items have to be less than 140 characters in length and sent via instant message, mobile text or the Web.

"Facebook is great for hooking up with college students or individual people who might want come work here," Lewis said, adding that her firm started exploring social networking sites in September. "LinkedIn is great for connecting with employees and alumni. We even have clients in our LinkedIn group. Twitter has been the place for me to connect with the rest of the accounting industry."

BUSINESS, PLEASURE - BOTH?

Social networking for business is also encouraged at Eisner & Lubin LLP in New York. The firm established an incentive program that awarded points to those employees who signed up for LinkedIn and Facebook accounts in an effort to sharpen networking skills, according to Victoria Rimasse, the firm's director of marketing and business development.

Two points were given for joining LinkedIn and Facebook, and then an additional two points for every 10 viable business contacts they added to their network, with prizes attached to the point system.

"I'm a big proponent of that type of marketing because it works," Rimasse said. "I reconnected with a few people from law school through LinkedIn, and now E&L is on their radar screen."

Rimasse also encourages employees to have personal Facebook profiles, but said that the main guideline for employees is that they act within firm policies and don't do anything that is deemed inappropriate.

On the other end of the spectrum, Barry Wechsler, a partner at Buchbinder Tunick & Co., in New York, said that employee use of social networking sites while at work has been troublesome.

"It's a real problem," said Wechsler, who is also in charge of the firm's information technology infrastructure. "I see, just wandering around the office, the younger kids are using Facebook but it's not being used for a business purpose. We're going to try to tighten up our policy."

"I don't see people who are on it all day long," Wechsler said. "I just don't think it's got a business purpose today. The pictures, the tagging, all that nonsense about going to so-and-so's 25th birthday party - I just don't see it in a business environment."

He's not the only one.

At CPA and business advisory firm Berdon LLC in New York, social networking sites are blocked completely, except for LinkedIn, yet the marketing department has allotted a separate computer to explore the business possibilities of using sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Tom Policano, CPA and partner at the firm, said that LinkedIn is allowed because it is considered a business networking site - describing the tool as another avenue for professional development, similar to getting involved in accounting associations or speaking at business organizations.

It's a similar situation at Citrin Cooperman & Co. in New York, where Facebook and MySpace are blocked as well. However, employees have access to, and are using, LinkedIn for business purposes. Anca Munteanu, the firm's marketing director, is conflicted about the use of Facebook, though the firm doesn't have a formal policy. "It can be easily abused," she said, adding that the firm does have a Facebook page for recruiting purposes. "I see how it can be used for business networking."

Linda Graham, human resources director at Anderson ZurMuehlen & Co. PC, in Helena, Mont., organized a meeting with managers in each of the firm's seven offices to discuss the uses of social networking sites. The conversation, according to Graham, turned to discussing whether to use such sites for vetting potential employees.

"We've had a couple of situations where managers asked our IT department to check [employees'] systems," Graham said, adding that there was a concern about lack of productivity. "And so far, for the individuals we've been concerned about, that has not been the issue. They didn't feel like we should set up a policy, that we might have the cart before the horse."

Still, Graham acknowledged that her firm is gaining a lot of younger staff - those in the 25-to-30-year-old group - and that there will be much more exploration regarding the use of social networking sites.

While Ernst & Young - one of the first firms to create a company-sponsored page on Facebook for recruiting purposes - does have a firmwide policy of not looking at potential candidates' profile pages on that site, they do not have a formal policy regarding employee use in the workplace.

"We expect our people to communicate in a professional manner on social networks just as they do in outside endeavors connected to the firm, such as community engagement activities or serving on nonprofit boards," said Dan Black, Ernst's Americas director of campus recruiting.

POLICY, PLEASE!

Legally, the employee is using the employer's computer and there is no expectation of privacy, according to Susan Volkert, an attorney at Decotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Wisler in Teaneck, N.J. "We've encouraged all of our clients to make sure that they update their policies so all their employees understand what the expectations are."

Wechsler's colleague at Buchbinder Tunick, Yigal Rechtman, CPA, CITP, agreed with the importance of creating and communicating a firm-wide policy. "The risk of not doing so is that an employee will do something wrong with a computer - say, run a gambling ring or harass someone - and consequently be fired," Rechtman said. "The employee or their attorney can then claim that it was an unlawful termination because a policy for the use of computer was not effectively communicated, and therefore the employee had no way to know that their action was wrong."

He suggested creating a Web site or shared drive and sending an annual e-mail to all employees directing them to the document. Some employers, he said, go a step further and require employees to acknowledge by signature or e-mail that they have read and understood the policies.

For more on this and similar issues, visit AccountingTomorrow.com.

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