It can be easy to disregard social networking's professional potential if you're only going on what you see on television. Between endlessly replayed clips where hysterical young men beg everyone to leave Britney Spears alone and the eyebrow-raising antics that a MySpace pinup performs on "A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila," it's understandable that many businesspeople are tempted to write off MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter as career-killers and some IT leaders consider pulling the plug on social networking use within the business.
However, social networking sites and tools don't have to be synonymous with Tila Tequila -- and for the emerging generation of professionals, they're not. When KRC Research surveyed so-called Millennials -- people aged 18-27 -- 40 percent of them expected to have access to social networking Web sites. And one's social profile may actually improve one's employability: Recently, blogger Tom Foremski observed that software developers and marketing professionals become more employable when they enjoy a significant professional footprint online.
There's a place in the office for social networking -- so long as you follow our commandments below.
1. Thou shalt present yourself respectfully and honestly
"It's OK to show personality and good humor, but be careful with how far you take it," warns Brian Block, a communications account executive at communications firm Pierpont. After all, your online profile in sites like LinkedIn or Facebook is the digital counterpart to your résumé.
Because so many people use their Facebook or Twitter accounts to manage both personal and professional aspects of their lives, this can lead to some tricky situations. Take, for example, vacation photos. It's not just your mom looking at pictures of you at the Grand Canyon anymore.
Employment lawyer Ron Solish says that when deployed correctly, vacation photos can be shared with your personal circle while burnishing your professional profile. If the vacation demonstrates talents or features that employers find attractive -- such as world traveling or mastering a complicated skill -- then post them.
But, he warns, "You should not post photos of yourself or others that paint you or others in an unprofessional light."
Similarly, you should also remember to be mindful of any text missives that could come back to haunt you. Block points out, "Your status updates do not have to be suitable for 'Bartlett's Familiar Quotations,' but think twice before posting what a rotten day you are having. HR may see it as a red flag."
2. Thou shalt ask: Do I want to explain this to an employer in 10 years? Or to my boss now?
"This is an opportunity to think long and hard," cautions Karen Berg, author of "Loud & Clear: 5 Steps to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want." She warns, "Think of your long-term goals."
Such thinking may run counter to the very here-and-now ethos of Facebook, Berg says, but you always face the risk that "10 years hence, someone is looking at your Facebook profile and asking, 'Who is this dweeb? Why would I want to hire him?'"
Editing your profile or dropping off Twitter is no guarantee that you'll erase past indiscretions -- just ask Soren Dayton. A former campaign aide for John McCain, Dayton was suspended after one of his individual Twitter dispatches, or "tweets," linked to a YouTube video that cast aspersions on Barack Obama's patriotism. Although the offending tweet is gone, Dayton's deeds were relentlessly covered online -- thereby guaranteeing that his social networking gaffe will be revived anytime someone does a search on his name.
As Block said, "If you choose to connect your personal profile with work, do not post anything you wouldn't feel comfortable with a client or the general public seeing."
3. Thou shalt set boundaries
There are a number of situations where you'll have to figure out where to draw lines. The first and most obvious: You plainly don't want to keep your supervisor in the loop on your year-long Scrabulous battle with your brother. However, integrating colleagues and clients in your network can prove to be very tricky. Do you automatically accede to your boss's request that you "friend" her on Facebook? Do you add the colleague you find to be grossly incompetent to your LinkedIn network? These are the kinds of questions you'll have to figure out how to answer.
The other boundary dilemma in social networking boils down to this: What happens if your workplace concludes that your network is its asset? Ron Solish points out that professional network groups are analogous to Rolodexes. "If employees leave, why should they get access to those networks?" he asks.
Solish says workplaces are still evaluating how to manage networks of contacts that its employees use in a professional capacity. Just be advised: The issue of who owns the online client list will be emerging for many organizations. Another issue, Solish says, will be whether former employees can still participate in employer-specific groups on networking sites.
4. Thou shalt not limit thy employees' time on social networks*
*Unless it seriously cuts into their productivity
The primary value of a social network is the aggregation of people on it. Block your employees from getting on a network, and you block their access to developing a far-flung group of people who can act as free advisers, leads for new businesses, or prospective new hires.
"If you're isolated, you're of no value to a manager," says Tom Hayes, author of "Jump Point: How Network Culture Is Revolutionizing Business." He adds, "And if you're management, ask yourself: What walled garden has ever prospered over time?"
Hayes says that social networks effectively disseminate information about industry trends, product announcements, and new talents. He adds, "Your best employees are the ones who are the most connected and most current."
Block says that social networks' real value rests in making an added connection that previously was not present, especially if those connections lead to offline partnerships.
5. Thou shalt not leave thy employees to founder, but lay down workplace guidelines
This way, you and your employer don't look incompetent or make a highly public gaffe. Block recommends the following steps:
1. Locate your internal expert on social networking, or find an outside guru.
2. Then make sure you define what purpose your social network participation will have. "Simply registering for LinkedIn or Twitter will not get you anything in return," he says. "Establish goals and how they can be met."
3. Finally, experiment. "Ask questions of others online. Share information. Become a resource, a voice, or a trusted personal brand that others will come to recognize."
David Nour, the author of the forthcoming "Relationship Economics," stresses that any involvement in social networking needs to be consistent and congruent with your company's focus and reputation.
He spells out some very specific work-related uses for social networking tools. They can be seen as the guidelines for workplace use: "Use Twitter to keep up with subject-matter experts, use Facebook and LinkedIn to identify and connect with experts, different perspectives, and unique insights. Use Flickr to share pictures of product development direction, ideas, or complex visual scenarios."
Be prepared for a swell in workplace policies regarding employees and their social networking activities. Solish says, "I'm starting to get a lot of requests from employers that we develop policies restricting access to social networking."
6. Thou shalt remember: We are all still figuring this out
There are few hard-and-fast rules for effectively deploying social networks in a professional environment so far. But everyone must start somewhere: There's no point to being online if you can't make it work.
"Above all else, remember that no one has perfected social networking, and it's an open market for growth," Block says.