A new study ties Facebook – and, by proxy, social networks in general – to increased divorce rates. While the write-up goes to a great deal of trouble to suggest that further work will be needed to prove that Facebook causes divorce, the report presents pretty damning evidence.
I bring this up because the same proof points that make Facebook and other social networks a potential cause for divorce appear to apply to employee loyalty as well. Employees who use social networks heavily should therefore be far more likely to depart or share confidential information without approval than those who don't. We seem to be ignoring the risks that social networks represent. Perhaps it's time to revisit them.
Facebook Use a Cause or Effect of Divorce (Or Both)
The study was commissioned after anecdotal information from divorce attorneys showcased a reasonable expectation of causality. In other words: Since Facebook's launch, the divorce rate has increased, and Facebook has become a far more common source for evidence of cheating in divorce trials.
The study looked at the information underlying the supposition. It found a positive correlation but couldn't conclude whether Facebook use was the cause or the effect of a process leading to divorce. In fact, a strong argument was made that it actually could be both. You can conclude from the study that if you and/or your spouse use Facebook, the probability of divorce increases significantly.
Several foundational elements lie underneath this. Social networks make people more visible to others looking for a relationship, enable interaction that can lead to cheating and, due to their insecurity, make discovery of cheating both easy and inexpensive. Social networks also create a support structure of friends and supporters that can make divorce far less painful.
Facebook and Disloyal Employees
At the core of the study is the connection of Facebook to a set of behaviors that are counter to any personal relationship. This seems to translate to work even better than it does to marriage. In work, recruiters and headhunters actively try to pull high-value employees from their current companies. If those recruiters can now more easily find people on LinkedIn or Facebook who meet their needs, and find intimate details about them, they can make their pitches far more compelling.
When I was a headhunter, finding out where in a company to find the skill set you needed, let alone the name of the person to pitch, meant penetrating the firms' security. The tricks we used would make a spy proud. With this information readily available on a social network, that process should be drop-dead simple today.
In addition, social networks are like email systems with Copy All turned on by default. That's dangerous; employees can get excited about a secret product or process and share it on the network, which then passes that information to the world. Social networks have ruined an impressive number of careers, and you have to wonder how many firms find out what their competitors are doing through them.
Most troubling, we seem to pretend that social networks don't exist outside of marketing. Monitoring current employees for bad behavior is still almost unheard of, though it does happen – even though using social networks to vet prospective employees is increasingly common. In some weird way, we accept that Facebook can identify problems in job candidates but forget this same benefit for existing employees – of which you likely have many more.
Finally, we know that infidelity at an executive level can cause substantial disruption. Recall Mark Hurd's departure from HP. Monitoring executive activity on social networks may be a way to catch or mitigate these problems.
Is it Time to Ban Facebook at Work?
Banning Facebook on the job was my first thought. But I think it's unreasonable, unworkable and, in the end, ineffective, as employees can even more easily get into trouble at home.
That said, you can justify aggressively monitoring employees' Facebook use to ensure the security of the firm and make sure executives aren't behaving in a way that embarrass the firm or degrade the company's brand. We can also conclude that heavy social network users at work aren't doing what they are being paid to do – unless it's part of their job – and have a higher probability of becoming a security risk or leaving the firm. That should impact the kinds of jobs and promotions appropriate for them.
In the end, it's well past time for every large firm to have a social networking policy that does a more complete job of protecting the firm's interests.