How Facebook mucks up office life

Managing a workforce is already a challenging job; now Facebook and other social networks raise a host of sticky new situations.

Imagine walking into a meeting and encountering not just your current co-workers, but all your colleagues and managers from jobs past, along with your spouse, your college drinking buddies, your Senior Prom date, and, off in a corner, your adolescent son, busy telling your boss how many hours he logs in every day playing Grand Theft Auto.

It's not a nightmare, it's Facebook.

If you're anything like the 200 million users on the burgeoning social network, you probably didn't give enough thought when you first signed on to which friend requests you accepted, or whom you invited via the Friend Finder. Now you've got a dangerously random group of friends and friends-of-friends sharing -- and over-sharing -- information, sometimes without your even being aware of it.

The "he told two friends, and they told two friends" syndrome can be embarrassing in your personal life, but potentially much more serious in the world of work.

Even if you're careful in posting work-related news in your status updates and comments on others' walls and feeds, are each and every one of your friends as cautious as you are? One buddy writing "Yo, how did the layoffs go down?" on your wall is enough to cause havoc in your office -- particularly if layoff day hasn't yet happened.

Even more troubling: the online behavior of your direct reports, who, demographically speaking, are likely to be both more enthusiastic and less discriminate in their use of Facebook and other social networks. "Younger people are using Facebook on a quasi-professional basis to build stronger relationships with people," says Michael Argast, director of Global Sales Engineering at security vendor Sophos Plc. "That means they're sharing a lot of information with a lot of people on a regular basis."

Again, if the information they're sharing is what five albums have most influenced their lives, fine. If the information they're sharing is that your division might miss its new product ship date "by a mile!!!!!!," that's not fine. Even more alarming, a new tool from Facebook lets users see their friends' activity streams from cell phones or computers without having to be logged into their Facebook home pages, which could potentially spread unwary users' updates and comments even faster than before.

In short, the more ubiquitous Facebook becomes, the greater its potential to muck up office life -- and make your job as a manager just that much more treacherous.

And these are just the accidents. The sea of information on Facebook is also starting to attract information pirates, identify thieves and malware distributors.

The best defense against these threats is awareness of the kinds of problems that can arise and how to head them off, coupled with a true understanding of the medium. Facebook does indeed offer tools (see Facebook's privacy options) to help its users better control the flow of information, but it's up to your employees -- perhaps with a little coaching from you -- to learn how to use them and then put them into play.

Until that happy day, here are some of the top inter-office challenges posed by Facebook:

Too many "friends"

All but the most cautious Facebook users wrestle with the problem of having too many disparate groups of people as "friends" -- co-workers, family members, drinking buddies, church colleagues and so forth. "Facebook has been relatively good about providing ways for users to separate friends into groups," says Argast, "but the tools are not that easy to find."

Separate from the social challenge is the issue of people, particularly younger Facebook users, becoming friends with people they don't know well, or even at all. "Facebook doesn't have our normal social mechanisms for validating someone," Argast points out -- and many users, especially people who use Facebook to network, are reluctant to turn down a friend request.

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