You’ve seen it happen.

During a moment of “down time” an employee is clicking around on a social networking site of choice and there you are – a manager or supervisor having caught glimpse of this – unsure about what you should do about it.

Before reacting, ask yourself this: Are social networking sites really inhibiting that employee’s productivity or affecting your network’s bandwidth? And is it really a bad thing?

Many firms, it seems, aren’t sure.

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.

As social networking sites gain more momentum, it comes as no surprise that an increasing number of people (usually those of the younger generation, though not always) are using them during the workday.

A recent survey found that despite their growing popularity, one in four companies is blocking access to such sites 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 consultancy 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. The survey however, did not ask about the size of the companies polled.

“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. We are always evaluating what our strategy should be.”

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. By subscribing to someone’s “tweet” you can follow along with what they are doing as often as they choose to update.

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 continued, 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.”

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.

The firm hired an outside consultant in an effort to incentivize becoming part of the marketing and business development culture and get the "young" people (anyone below partner level) familiar with networking and bringing in new business. 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. The program offered a matrix of activities. Prizes were attached to the point system. If participants received a certain number of points and reached a certain level, they earned comp time and extra vacation days. The winning team had lunch at a steakhouse and the grand prize was a trip to Jamaica or a weekend spa trip.

"I'm a big proponent of that type of marketing because it works," Rimasse said of using social networking sites. "I reconnected with a few people from law school through LinkedIn, and now E&L is on their radar screen. If it had not been for LinkedIn, I would have never even known what type of practice some of them were in. Plus, it was a more social way to connect than calling out of the blue."

Rimasse also encourages employees to have individual Facebook personal 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.

She added that though there’s been no concern of misuse, the human resources department would be considering an addendum to the firm manual to address usage.

"Since it's relatively new, there is no specific policy and so far no one has been censored and done anything inappropriate," she said. "With our professionals, they are not paid by the hour; they are paid by the job. Most of them don't abuse it. And since it's a different generation, the Millennials [those born between 1981 and 2000], that's where they live. I found that it’s been effective."

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.”

Wechsler, who hadn’t heard of LinkedIn, said that he only recognized Facebook because his kids use the site. He said that it’s fine if employees use social networking sites during their lunch breaks, but if usage becomes more frequent, the firm will look at blocking the site altogether. Still, he said, he doesn’t think it inhibits productivity

“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.

“Social networking sites are very much a phenomenon of our time and Berdon recognizes that many of our professionals use them not only to build relationships but as a means to grow socially, solve problems and network,” said Tom Policano, CPA and partner. “As a workplace tool, these sites raise questions that we are still looking into. Right now, we don’t allow them for personal use.”

Policano added 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.

He also said that the firm decided against allowing MySpace and Facebook because of an internal IT assessment of Internet usage and a concern that accessing those sites might create bandwidth issues on the server.

“Also, we felt that the attraction to spend a little too much time on these sites was always there and this could impact our productivity,” Policano said. “After weighing these factors, we decided that IT should block these types of Web sites.”

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,” Munteanu said, adding that the firm does have a Facebook page for recruiting purposes. “I see how it can be used for business networking. A team member sets up business lunches and business appointments through Facebook. I have mixed feelings about it because I can see how people can be addicted to it for personal reasons. If people would be disciplined and say, 'I’ll allow a half hour of my time to use it for career and business advancement,' then I could see it.”

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. She said that the meeting initially took place to find out if social networking was the cause of a few unproductive 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. “We talked about it and are having our marketing department come up with some ideas about what we’d put up on those sites,” she said.

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 & Young’s Americas director of campus recruiting. “Ernst & Young embraces social networking sites as a way to build and maintain networks with colleagues, peers, alumni and others. We also use social networking to connect with college students to help them learn more about career opportunities at the firm.”

As a result of questions that have emerged around this issue, at least one group is planning a panel pulling people of different firm ranks together for discussion.

“We wanted to understand how accounting firms were handling the issue of social networking and policies,” said Alicia Olesinski, president of New Angle Marketing in Manalapan, N.J. and a board member of the New York chapter of the Association for Accounting Marketing. “But we also wanted to bring in some professionals who could talk with us about how professionals are using social networking. The question is becoming what’s relevant and what’s not to our world? What’s social, what’s business, what’s reliable? We wanted to try to answer those questions.”

Legally, however, 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 of their employees understand what the expectations are of the employer in the use of all these systems. It at least puts the employee on notice on what the employer will consider permissible and not permissible.”

Volkert said that firms that create Facebook pages should be legally safe as long as posted information is verified and a policy is created that sets up an expectation for the employee so boundaries are understood.

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 said that there is no one way to effectively communicate all the company’s policies, yet he suggested creating a Web site or shared drive and send 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. “Having an effectively communicated firm policy is important as a risk mitigator for a company.”