Facebook on the Job

Philip Berne - Dec 19, 2010
Facebook on the Job

When I took a look back at the original Tron movie, one thing that struck me, one thing that I hadn’t remembered since I last watched the movie so long ago, was that the encapsulating plot was really about a company that was cutting off its employees’ access to the outside world. Jeff Bridges’ character Flynn can’t get access to the corporate mainframe from outside the company. So, he enlists the help of a couple old friends who still work for Encom, Those friends are disgruntled because their access has been restricted while the company conducts a security review, trying to figure out who has been hacking into the system. It turns out, the company was right to be suspicious. Even though Flynn is vindicated by the evidence he finds, the company was right that there was a security risk.

Was it right to shut out the current employees? I’m not sure. On the one hand, the company was right to be suspicious of its employees, or at least right to take precautions that would limit access. On the other hand, you could argue that it was Encom’s draconian security policies that pushed Flynn’s friends into helping him break into the system.

If you place trust in your employees, you get trust in return. If you go out of your way to restrict employees’ access, you get a workforce that tries harder to circumvent those restrictions, without the endemic trust necessary to run a collegial work environment.

Today, the question isn’t just whether companies should restrict access to sensitive, proprietary information. There is also a question about whether employees should have access to their own personal information while on the job. Should an employee be able to check personal email or update a Facebook status while at work? I’ve heard of very few corporate jobs where employees are restricted from taking the occasional, brief personal call at their cubicles. After all, as someone who works from home, how would I ever find the remote control if I couldn’t call my wife at her office to find out where she hid it?

But there are different issues at play when social networking gets involved. Foremost there is the question of security. It is too easy to reveal company secrets or proprietary information without even thinking about it, if you are constantly worried about telling your friends what you are doing, or sending off pictures of funny things you’ve encountered in your work space. Note to friends: office humor is never as funny as you think it is. That doesn’t mean I don’t like seeing pictures of your Boba Fett lego minifigs spelunking the office toilet, but you’re not going to get a LOL out of me.

Let’s assume that security isn’t the problem, though. Are there other reasons why an employer should restrict Facebook access? Facebook is the biggest time waster on the Internet right now. Doesn’t that mean access will cut into productivity? Perhaps, but I think it depends more on your style of management and your corporate culture.

For a couple of years I was an office manager at a technology Web site. I was responsible for hiring and firing employees, and for motivating my staff to be productive and enthusiastic about their jobs. We were a relatively small, but not unnoticed site, and my staff was almost always young and fresh out of college. For many, it was their first real, salaried job with benefits.

I tried to take a laissez-faire approach. I didn’t want to be an overlord, I just wanted them to do a good job. Mostly, though, I wanted my staff to take initiative. Web writing is, by nature, a field that requires some ingenuity and tenacity. For the most part I tried the positive reinforcement approach, praising what I thought was good and mostly ignoring the stuff I thought was bad. My focus was on the results of my employee’s labor, not the process that led up to those results. So, if an employee wanted to work from home, that was fine if they got their work done. If an employee wanted to spend time on instant messaging clients, that was fine as long as they didn’t miss deadlines and turned in work on time.

Occasionally, this backfired. I had one employee who was stupid enough to leave the sound on his machine turned up. Every time he got an incoming IM, I heard it. It was grating. I might have ignored it, except that there were other problems, as well.

I had a difficult time getting in contact with this employee. When he was out in the field testing a product for a review, he would not answer text messages or emails, and often missed phone calls. For the most part, his submissions were timely and the quality of his work wasn’t bad, but he had created a perception problem in our relationship that was impossible to overcome.

I felt like his friends and family had no trouble contacting him on work time, but I couldn’t seem to reach him. Whether or not this was as bad as I thought, just the fact that I noticed the constant influx of IMs, while I had trouble getting hold of him, made me frustrated.

I started getting more annoyed at the other ways he was stretching the bounds of my relaxed oversight. Instead of positive praise, I started giving him ultimatums. I wanted him in the office on time. I wanted a response to emails or phone messages within a certain time period. My deadlines grew more strict. I’m not someone who gives ultimatums and then does not follow through. Eventually, I fired this employee.

Was his work so bad that he deserved to be fired? Well, it wasn’t good enough that I thought it was worth overlooking all of the other problems we had. But in retrospect, it was probably more of a perception issue than a performance problem.

If you are a stellar employee who performs beyond all expectations, I doubt your employer would have any problem with your Facebook activities (within reason, of course). If you give your boss the impression that you are attentive and present during work hours, and that your primary concern during your work day is the welfare of the company, IM chatting and the occasional phone call would never be a problem.

The same is true on the other side of this equation. Even after the trouble I had with this employee, and similar trouble with others, I still kept my laissez-faire philosophy. I’m not my employees’ parent or guardian, nor am I their school teacher or camp counselor. I am their boss, and my job is to help the employee achieve the company’s goals to keep us profitable and growing.

I’m not going to be so naïve to think that my employees must be productive for 8 hours straight in a work day. There needs to be breaks. Sometimes a few minutes spent on Facebook or Twitter helps fight fatigue and refreshes an employee’s mind. Sometimes checking in with a friend or loved one keeps the employee from feeling isolated and lonely. I know that it works for me, as a worker. But I also know when to close the right tabs in my browser, to log out of Facebook and leave Twitter alone for a while.

Mostly, though, I know that while it can be difficult to be exceedingly productive, it is even more difficult to fight the negative perceptions that come from disengagement at work. If you’re going to spend part of your work day, part of the hours for which you are being paid by your company, doing your own personal thing, you need to build confidence in your employer that overall you are more than worth the company’s money and time. If you wait until your boss has to crack down and start issuing ultimatums, chances are it’s already too late.

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