WILLMAR -- If your boss ever catches you updating your Facebook status or posting a tweet from your work computer, you probably won't be fired -- but you might get a stern look and a warning.
These days, everyone from President Obama to the person who makes your morning latte at the local coffee shop has a Facebook or Twitter profile. But what many employers have begun to realize is that more and more people are accessing these social media sites on company time.
That's why Brian Sheehan, president and chief executive officer of Rural Computer Consultants Inc. in Bird Island, doesn't allow his employees to use Facebook -- or any social networking site -- at work.
His business, which provides computer software and programming support for rural-based propane and fuel distribution companies, represents the 54 percent of U.S. companies that have banned social networking sites, according to Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm.
"Facebook does not help or assist employees at all," Sheehan said. "We decided to block these sites a couple of years ago when we realized they were becoming a problem."
Employers who ban social networking sites at the office have plenty of statistics to support their decisions. Companies that allow access to Facebook lose an average of 1.5 percent in total employee productivity each year, according to Nucleus Research Inc., a company that specializes in investigative information technology research,
The same survey, conducted in 2009, also found that some employees use Facebook at work for up to two hours a day.
Sheehan said he believes that spending even 10 minutes a day on Facebook hurts employee efficiency. With 40 employees, if each one spends 10 minutes on the site, his company loses an average of seven hours of productivity each day, he said.
"They take it for granted and don't think they're harming anyone if they've finished all their work," Sheehan said. "But we definitely have enough for them to do here."
Recently, several other studies have attempted to prove that the use of Facebook at work can actually increase productivity at the office -- not the other way around.
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study last year found that employees with large social networks on sites like Facebook or Twitter are actually 7 percent more productive at work than their "less connected" co-workers.
Along those same lines, a 2009 survey from Melbourne University in Australia found that workers are 9 percent more productive if allowed a "moderate" personal use of the Internet on company time.
Chris Bennett, asset manager of Bennett Office Technologies in Willmar, said his company allows employees to access sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn at work because management trusts employees to stay on task.
"We trust our employees to use their time wisely and productively," Bennett said. "It really hasn't been an issue."
The company's 32 employees spend much, if not most, of their workdays on computers, Bennett said, so it doesn't make sense to restrict access to certain websites.
"Because of the nature of our business, we need to show leniency and trust to our employees," he said. "They need freedom to be effective at their jobs."
As for making employees more productive, Bennett doesn't know for sure if Facebook helps, but he said it certainly doesn't hurt.
"If a particular employee wants to take that personal time, I don't see that as an issue," he said. "Productivity is a whole, not just five- or 10-minute bits and pieces at a time."
But many business owners, like Sheehan, aren't so sure.
"We trust our employees explicitly, but everyone has a different tolerance for what is or is not acceptable," he said.
Today, many businesses use Facebook and Twitter as promotional tools. Bennett Office Technologies has a presence on both, and Bennett said that's one of the reasons the company is more lenient when it comes to allowing employees access to these websites.
"I think Facebook is a good tool for businesses because it can be shared with people you trust," Bennett said. "It also helps you reach business contacts. People like to do business with people they know."
Sarah Kuglin, director of marketing for Bennett Office Technologies, is in charge of posting regular updates on the company's Facebook and Twitter accounts. She also manages the company's blog.
"This is another avenue to build relationships," she said. "We make it more about having a relationship rather than just throwing out sales pitches. That's what social networking is all about."
Facebook and Twitter are free, effective ways to market the company to the public and to other businesses, Kuglin said.
"It's one of the easiest ways to put information right in front of other businesses," she said.
But not all businesses benefit from having a Facebook or Twitter profile, Sheehan said. He chooses not to create online profiles for his company because he's not trying to reach a larger public.
" ... It's not considered a professional marketing tool in our market," he said. "We're not geared toward the general public at all."
When it comes to allowing employees access to these networking sites, Bennett said the decision becomes a matter of how much faith a company is willing to put in its employees.
"Certainly, one can easily get lost in social networking and lose track of time," he said. "There's always that chance, but we show a lot of trust in our employees. It's a give and take."
-- Sherri Richards of Forum Communications Co. contributed to this story.