The face-off over Facebook (Editor's notes)

To ban or not to ban?

If you haven’t heard of or been to, you’re probably in the minority. The popular social networking site boasts about two million users across Canada and 21 million around the world.

Visitors can create online profiles, connect with long-lost school chums, reunite with old flames and form virtual communities, to name just a few activities.

Facebook has been attracting attention, mostly in the form of ire, from some employers recently. Most notably, the Ontario government decided earlier this month to start blocking its employees from accessing the website at work. Provincial staffers who attempt to access Facebook using government computers are now greeted with the same “unacceptable computer-use” screen they would get if they attempt to surf porn or visit gambling sites. Toronto Dominion Bank also blocks its employees from visiting Facebook, as do some departments of the federal government.

On the surface, banning the website seems like a pretty easy call. After all, there aren’t many legitimate work reasons to be on Facebook. And there are a lot of good reasons to block employees from using the site.

In the May 4 issue of The Toronto Star, for example, there was an article that highlighted an online group on Facebook called “American Eagle SUCKS … So Why do I work There???” The group, which at press time had 25 members, was created by employees of the clothing retailer. Most of the comments are gripes about pay and working hours, and how they can’t wait to find another job. It’s very typical office chatter — mostly harmless — but it’s in a very public space.

But despite that type of risk, there are some compelling reasons to let workers continue to access Facebook. Employees can use it for knowledge sharing across groups within the company or to network with colleagues in the outside world. That can be invaluable.

But perhaps the most compelling reason not to block the site is that it doesn’t really solve the problem employers are concerned about. Facebook is but one avenue where workers can gripe about their employer. And if it’s the “wasted-time-during-work-hours” argument — the website can apparently be quite addictive, sucking up hours of time — that’s a completely different issue.

Modern workplaces are full of potential distractions and diversions. Almost every computer comes equipped with games like solitaire, pinball and hearts. Anyone with Internet access can visit sites like Yahoo! Games, or one of thousands of other non work-related websites to wile away their days. And Facebook is hardly the only site where employees can go network, waste time and post potentially harmful information about their employer.

So banning Facebook at work, while an easy short-term solution, accomplishes next to nothing in the long run. Sites like Facebook and YouTube take a while to rise to the level where they make it onto employers’ radar screens. While employers are restricting access to those, employees can simply search for a new online arena.

Employers experiencing a problem with sites like Facebook would be better off addressing the root causes of why employees think it’s acceptable to spend their working time this way.

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