Social networking is big business: Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, Twitter, Viadeo - there are plenty of sites waiting for you to upload your photos and tell all about your escapades on a Friday night. But how do you separate work life from personal life, especially when you do socialise with work colleagues as friends? It is possible, and if you don’t pay attention to what you say online, you could find it career-limiting.

Susan Wilson Solovic is the CEO of and an attorney who believes that social networks used appropriately can be beneficial. “Personally, I’ve made good business contacts from leveraging LinkedIn and Facebook,” she says. “However, you need to limit the personal information you share if you are using such sites for business. First, it’s not safe. But secondly, even though you think certain aspects of your page are private – there’s always a way to obtain that information. The last thing you want is for a business associate to see the pictures of you with the lampshade on your head at the company holiday party.”

Mike Hayes, owner of Arizona-based recruitment company Momentum Specialized Staffing, agrees. “Since we are paid to prescreen, I check these sites for higher level jobs,” he says. “We have even seen a MySpace profile with the applicant chugging a bottle of Crown Royal! And one which appeared to be smoking pot.” Not a good impression to make on your future employer, or on your current colleagues. Don’t write anything online that you wouldn’t be happy with your boss reading. It sounds like common sense, but the informality of web communication means people don’t always treat the Internet with the consideration it needs.

“One of my employees created a MySpace page,” says Wilson Solovic. “He also set me up with one. Over the holiday break I knew he was going to propose to his girlfriend. So I went on his page to see if he had blogged about it. Sure enough, he had a blog entry titled ‘She Said Yes.’ So while I was there I decided to read a few more entries. That’s when I found one talking about his ‘chicken s____’ bosses and how he hates his job and so on and so forth. I was livid. I was ready to terminate him the first day back in the office. Even though he apologized and took it down, my trust level was never there. Today, I would definitely fire him, but when this happened my company was still small enough that it would have crippled our productivity during the search for a replacement.”

“I encourage our internal staff to use the sites on a professional level,” says Hayes. “Make sure any friends they add, like on MySpace, do not have questionable pictures. I believe these sites will be further searched as it becomes a better known source to check-up on employees or applicants.”

Companies have another way to check up on employees too - by monitoring internet usage. Recently Kailash Ambwani, CEO of FaceTime, a company that provides software to manage employee use of social networking sites at work, met with an advertising agency in London that had analysed the use of social networking sites, based on internet logs. The agency found that on average, across its worldwide employee base of about 20,000, staff were spending two days a month on social networking sites – mainly Facebook. That’s about 40,000 days a month. No wonder many companies block all social networking sites from the workplace.

Blocking access to social networking sites might seem like the easy option for employers, but there are benefits to having these tools in the office. FaceTime’s research includes companies who have lost interview candidates because of their policies against use of Web 2.0 including social networking and instant messaging – these companies are perceived by many young people as uninteresting places to work. On the other hand, enabling this type of tool means organisations can strengthen relationships with customers and suppliers and engage with them in a media that suits the time constraints of the recipient. For teams that are not co-located, catching up via IM or Twitter could be the best way to stay in touch.

So if your company lets you use social networking sites, should you? Lorna McLaren, a trainer and communication expert from Kelowna, British Columbia, believes you should. “Building relationships is paramount for business these days – we want to connect with the ‘human’ element, the authentic person and women are wired for interdependent relationships. Many people want to get to know you before they buy into your product, service, leadership. With the technology keeping people from face to face connections, we yearn for it.”

Keep your networking controlled in the workplace, though: you aren’t being paid to hang out online with your friends. “Schedule time in at work to nurture these ‘business’ relationships,” says McLaren. “Do
your personal friends on your own time.”

Social networking sites are now very real phenomena of Web 2.0, and neither employers or employees should overlook the influence these tools can have in the workplace. Business leaders are going to have to work out how best to use them to their advantage and those of us with user accounts are going to have to wise up to how we present ourselves online. Otherwise both parties will miss out on some great business opportunities.

Author's Bio: 

Mike Hayes, owner of Arizona-based recruitment company Momentum Specialized Staffing, which is RANKED #5 FOR STAFFING COMPANIES IN ARIZONA BUSINESS MAGAZINE'S. You can visit their website or his blog