Be Cautious with Social Networking Sites

Be Cautious with Social Networking Sites

Computer Circut Art
Computer Circut Art

Growing numbers of business professionals are connecting into social networking Web sites, such as Facebook, in an effort to build work relationships, meet new contacts, and better market themselves. But such sites also provide a window into people’s personal lives causing concern to some about giving people in the business world too much information. In a Q&A feature from The New York Times, careers columnist Matt Villano offered the following guidance on how workers can use social networking sites and maintain a professional demeanor.

Q: You have mixed feelings about giving professional contacts a window into your personal life via social networking sites. What should you do?

Proceed with caution. While it may seem harmless to establish virtual connections with your officemates, doing so might put you in an uncomfortable position at work, said Juliette Powell, who runs a career consulting business and wrote a book about social networking, “33 Million People in the Room.”

Social networking is “all about establishing boundaries,” she said. “If you have something online that you wouldn’t share openly with people in the office, you probably want to think twice about inviting them in.”

Q: Are some social networking outlets more business-oriented than others?

Of three popular sites – Linkedin, Facebook,  and Twitter – only LinkedIn limits us

ers to posting business-related information like work experience and professional recommendations.

Q: What are the professional benefits of connecting with colleagues via online sites?

Employers can use them to complement their professional networks – a virtual extension of the traditional Rolodex. Artists post on MySpace and Twitter to advertise their work. Jobseekers use LinkedIn as a way to exchange interview tips.

Small business owners even conduct everyday operations over social networking sites. Serena Software, an application development company in Redwood City, Calif., uses Facebook as an unofficial company intranet, encouraging employees to share documents, post PowerPoint presentations and exchange e-mail messages there.

The company even allows employees an hour every Friday to explore the site and update their profiles. “We’re trying to achieve maximum collaboration,” Rene Bonavanie, the company’s senior vice president for marketing, told the newspaper. “If people are using this site for personal reasons anyway, why not encourage them to use it here, too?”

Q: What are the potential pitfalls?

Public embarrassment, for one. Comments on many social networking sites, much like blogs, exist forever, meaning that a person can access them at any time, read them and pass judgement accordingly.

Photographs can become a nuisance, too. Especially on a site like Facebook, where someone’s approved contacts can “tag” a user in a photo, there’s a chance that colleagues might come across images of you behaving wildly years ago at a college party, or performing drunken karaoke last weekend, or worse.

“Any time the camera comes out these days, there’s a chance the resulting photos will be on the Internet within hours,” said Nathan T. Wright, founder of Lava Row, a social media strategy firm in Des Moines. “If you’re going to have work people on these sites, you need to understand this threat.”

Dismissal is even possible if you post something unflattering about your employer in a status update or other feature that can be viewed by everyone on your network.

Q: To what extent can you control the information your connections see?

Every social networking Web site works differently. On LinkedIn, where all information is business-related, users can choose which information to include in their public profiles. On Twitter, most posts, or “tweets,” are public.

Nick O’Neill, who writes the independent “All Facebook” blog, has published a guide to mastering the site’s new privacy settings. The post detailed ways that users can organize friends into certain lists, and select which of those friends see what. It also explained how users can prevent profiles from coming up in standard Google searches.

“Most Facebook” users don’t even know these features are options,” said O’Neill, who also owns a digital media company in Washington. “I can’t tell you how many people sign up and don’t ever think about privacy again.”

Q: If you wish to decline certain connection requests, what is the most polite approach?

Be honest and consistent. Rachel Weingarten, president of the Octagon Strategy Group, a consulting firm in New York, said employees who wish to avoid colleagues on certain social networking sites should respond to every request by explaining that they’d rather put all work contacts into one particular social network, or designate all social networking sites for connections made outside of work.

These sorts of policies must be applied equally, she told the newspaper. “The last thing you want is to accept some requests but decline others, then have the people you’ve rejected find out they didn’t make the cut,” she said. In the world of modern office politics, she added, “that’s about as bad as it gets.”