If email was the killer app of the 1990s, social networking holds that distinction thus far in the new millennium. It began as a venue for the younger generation but now people of all ages use Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and other social sites for both personal and business-related communications. GFI’s recent small business survey shows that 37 percent of workers use Facebook daily, with only 25 percent saying they’ve never used it. A hefty 64 percent use some kind of social networking service on a regular basis.

In the early days of social networking, many companies blocked the sites for fear employees would use them to “goof off” and neglect their job duties. According to the survey, 33 percent of respondents do, indeed, use social networks for personal reasons while at work. 72 percent claim it has no effect on their productivity. On the other hand, 18 percent admit it negatively impacts their productivity. Blocking social sites might not go far toward solving the problem of being distracted by online temptations, anyway. The survey showed that 91 percent of workers use their employer-owned mobile devices for non-work activities, including email and online shopping.

Social networking may be blurring the lines, for better or worse, when it comes to fraternization between supervisors and subordinates. Many companies frown on such friendships, on the theory that it makes it more difficult for managers to be objective about those who work for them. However, almost half of those surveyed (48 percent) said they are Facebook friends with employees they supervise. On the other side of the relationship, far fewer of the non-managerial respondents (29 percent) said they were “friends” with their managers.

Social networking, like almost any other technology, can be used wisely or irresponsibly. Relationships developed through social sites can be beneficial to the business, but socializing can be taken too far and become detrimental to the company (and to the employee’s career). Company policies that set well-thought-out guidelines for the use of social networking on the job (rather than banning it altogether) can help achieve the optimum balance.

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