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Can social networking co-exist with the workplace?

Corporate moves to completely block social-networking sites will only backfire, Internet attorney Eric J. Sinrod says.

With Facebook and participation growing by leaps and bounds, social-networking sites are making their way into the workplace too.

Is that a good thing? Not necessarily if you ask the employers who regularly block employee access to such sites.

Indeed, a recent analysis of data submitted by thousands of Barracuda Networks' Web Filter customers finds that about half the businesses using these filters are setting up blocks to MySpace, Facebook, and other such sites. Barracuda also reported that 21 percent of the businesses it surveyed actively monitor their employees' Internet activities.

At first blush that may sound like a corporate version of Big Brother, but employers do have legitimate reasons to worry.

Their chief concern is the potential damage from viruses or spyware, according to Barracuda. They cited the potential drain on employee productivity as a close second. What's more, employers will tell you that bandwidth issues and potential liability exposure are also convincing reasons to restrict certain Internet access by employees.

Nevertheless, businesses may learn eventually that the types of powerful communication tools now available for personal purposes on social-networking sites can be leveraged for perfectly appropriate and advantageous business uses. In fact, a number of business professionals already are communicating with one another on, a business-oriented social-networking site.

The challenge for employers is to find a way to defend against intrusions while fostering employee productivity. They want to limit potential liability even while offering the use of the most robust communication tools possible.

Hence the dilemma.

But this dilemma, over time, likely will be resolved. Once upon a time, businesses to some extent were very worried about any sort of Web access for employees. They feared that the hired help would spend the day surfing inappropriate sites, shopping online, and otherwise wasting company time--not to mention potentially leaking proprietary company information.

However, it is a fact of business life that companies that deploy the best and most effective means of communication will succeed. Thus, over time, companies have developed business equipment and computer policies. These policies specifically delineate for employees how they should--and should not--use the company's computers, networks, and e-mail. Employees are also asked to sign documents agreeing to follow such policies.

There have been problems, of course. Not every employee who has signed such an agreement has acted in concert with the company's Internet policies. Still, there is no question that companies that have embraced the Internet have benefited over those that have ignored the changes overtaking the business world.

Social-networking sites truly do provide robust features that provide a richer means of online communications. Rather than ban employees from using the medium, managers should think ahead how to turn it to their advantage. Careful thought should be given when considering the use of any networking features that could be detrimental to an enterprise. From there, policies can be crafted on a company-by-company basis to guide employees and gain their buy-in.

Yes, legal counsel likely should be consulted along the way too. While this imposes some costs on the front end, the profitable proof will be in the pudding. Any company built to last will recognize this is an investment in its future.