The question of whether or not to block Facebook and other social networking sites has the law firms divided.
Policies that firms have in place to deal with the issue range widely; some allowing employees to use these sites freely, others blocking or significantly restricting access.
DLA Phillips Fox is one firm that has taken a strict approach. The firm’s employees are given a daily 60 minute period to access sites a range of sites, such as Facebook, that the firm considers to be non-business related. The 60 minutes can be used at anytime throughout the day, but once used up, the employee can’t sites access the sites for the rest of the day.
“We’ve had this policy for quite some time,” the firm’s general manager of IT, John Duckett explained. “It wasn’t designed for Facebook or MySpace, but the social networking sites just happen to fall into that category [of restricted sites].”
A combination of a number of factors, such as issues of system performance and security, lead to the firm taking this approach, Duckett explained.
“Downloads impact other business activities, such as the promptness of email. People are downloading lots of stuff on the internet, and this is the case with Facebook, even if they may not be conscious of it, because it has a lot of graphics,” he said. “[Also] with social networking sites, there’s a lot of security problems. There’s a risk of loss of corporate data when people are uploading to those sites because we can’t impose the same security restrictions we would for other sites and emails.”
Worker productivity is also a concern for the firm, Duckett admitted. “We don’t want to hinder employees or make their lives unhappy, but you are meant to be working during working hours, so how much do you need to visit these sites?” he said.
Freehills sits on the other end of the spectrum, allowing employees to access Facebook freely, albeit with policies in place regarding appropriate internet use. According to Gareth Bennett, the firm’s director for people and development, it’s a policy that the vast majority of employees respect.
“We’ve debated this issue a few times recently, but in our view, we bring in professionals and we expect them to behave professionally, and they do,” he said. “I firmly believe that it’s better to treat people as responsible adults, and they inevitably respond well to that. If you do get one or two people who might abuse it then you deal with them separately, rather than put out a policy based on the lowest common denominator.”
Bennett said that the firm hasn’t had any problems with system performance as a result of allowing employees access to social networking sites. “We haven’t seen any examples of that. As I said, it’s a professional organisation and the absolute vast majority of people respect that,” he said.
Similarly to Freehills, Deacons allows employees to access Facebook freely, subject to a “reasonable use” policy. Partner and Sydney office chairman Nick Abrahams, explained that the policy is designed to give employees a sense of what is considered reasonable, incidental, personal internet use, as well as covering a range of concerns such as the disclosure of the firm’s confidential information and IP, and harassment. In Abraham’s view, it is important for organisations that choose not to block social networking sites to have such policies in place.
“People need to be wary of letting confidential information out. They need to be aware that information that goes out onto these sites will become available for many years into the future,” he said. “People have had significant issues with their online personalities and not being able to retract information they’ve made available and that’s certainly been an issue with Facebook. So it’s really an education process — explaining to people how these things work and what is regarded as “reasonable”.
One issue the firms seem to particularly disagree on is whether Facebook has any value as a business networking tool. Duckett is particularly sceptical of this claim. “I think it’s primarily for personal use, and if people choose to use it, then that’s fine. But let’s not delude ourselves that there is a real business use,” he said.
Bennett, however, takes a very different view. “There’s no doubt [Facebook] can be valuable for business networking,” he said. “If you think about colleagues who’ve decided to go and work in London for a couple of years, which is pretty common in legal circles, staying in touch with those people is a real benefit for us. In fact what I’m looking into at the moment is perhaps formalising that with some sort of alumni professional networking service,” he said.
Abrahams, who sits some where in the middle, said that the line between social networking and business networking can beblurred. “I don’t think it’s necessarily used as a true business networking tool. But it is used as a social networking tool which can ultimately have good impacts on the business,” he said,
“For example, organisations like KMPG have really embraced Facebook, and they have, I think, more than 10,000 users on their Facebook page. I think that’s great. It shows they’re thinking about what new opportunities are created by this and by your people wanting to be involved and share information,” he said.