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Companies Say No to Friending or Tweeting

Tresa Baldas
The National Law Journal
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lawyers are calling it social networking burnout. Back-to-back studies, the most recent issued Tuesday, show a big chunk of corporate America is banning communication wonders like Twitter and Facebook from the workplace.

According to the latest survey of more than 1,400 U.S. companies, more than half (54 percent) said they prohibit employees from visiting sites such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace while on the clock. The survey, by Robert Half Technology, a provider of information technology staffing services, was based on telephone interviews with U.S. companies of 100 or more employees.

Another recent survey delivered even graver news for the social media world. According to an August survey by ScanSafe, a Web security provider, 76 percent of companies are now choosing to block employees' use of social networking -- up 20 percent from February -- which is now a more popular category of sites to block than those involving shopping, weapons, sports or alcohol.

Lawyers say their experience bears the surveys out. Gerald Lutkus, a partner in the South Bend, Ind., office of Indianapolis-based Barnes & Thornburg, said, "We're seeing companies block Facebook all the time. I really think we're going to see much more blocking of Twitter, too."

So who's doing all the blocking?

J. Crew, the clothing retail giant, does not allow its employees to blog at work or participate in any other form of posting information on the Internet. Several investment banks have blocked employees from using Facebook, including Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and UBS.

ESPN, the sports network, recently banned its work force from posting any sports-related content on social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook without its permission. And the Associated Press initiated a strict social media policy in June, requiring its employees to police not only what they say on Facebook, but what their friends say, and delete certain comments that friends post on their Facebook pages.

Law firms have also joined in the trend. Indianapolis-based Barnes & Thornburg has blocked all access to Facebook. Twitter is still available, however. Gunster Yoakley & Stewart of West Palm Beach, Fla., blocks Facebook and Twitter for all its support staff, including secretaries and legal assistants, but lets lawyers use the social media tools. London's Allen & Overy tried to ban Facebook in 2007, but then lifted the ban after associate backlash.

Lawyers say the bans are due to a number of factors, including loss of productivity, data theft fears, liability risks if online comments turn up in lawsuits and corporate image concerns.

"I think what's happening is social media is starting to simmer, and the lawyers and the PR teams, the HR teams and marketing teams are realizing there are all these problems," said Gaida Zirkelbach, an associate at Gunster who focuses on technology and the Internet.

But Zirkelbach herself is skeptical of the bans. "I don't know if that's going to work ultimately," she said, suggesting that employees will likely ignore the rules. "It's better to have a policy, just like with everything else," she said.

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