Companies are swarming to social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter, hoping to boost their brands, connect with customers and even find new employees.
But they're also struggling to rein in potential problems.
Employers cringe at the thought of employees revealing proprietary information, hackers making mischief or a roomful of workers busy reconnecting with old high school friends on Facebook instead of doing their jobs.
The ubiquity of social networking -- 77 percent of workers have a Facebook account, for example, and 61 percent of those access Facebook on the job, according to Boston-based Nucleus Research -- complicates matters.
"Everyone's on Facebook, even grandmothers," said Amelya Stevenson, president of human resources consultancy e-VentExe.
Companies don't want to limit their activity, but they have to arm themselves.
It depends on the culture and if they trust their employees."
Nucleus Research last July estimated that on-the-job use of Facebook alone costs companies 1.5 percent of total employee productivity.
Policies on employee use of social networks are all over the map, from total bans on Internal access to no policy at all.
A 2009 survey by the Minneapolis-based Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics found that just one in three businesses have a general policy for employee online activity including use of social networks.
The survey -- titled "Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Compliance: What are Companies Doing?" -- also found that half have no policy for employee online activity outside work, and just 10 percent have a specific policy addressing social networking sites.
"So much of the Internet seems to come out of nowhere," said society vice president Adam Turteltaub. "The pace of change is such that technology continues emerging and taking on a life of its own that we can't control."
Roy Snell, the society's CEO, said employers should have a clear policy in place and supervisors to enforce it while encouraging their employees to use social media to network with their industry peers.
There's no doubt that many companies and government agencies are finding ways to use social media sites as an effective information gateway.
Nearly 70 percent of small business marketers are employing social media, according to e-mail marketing firm AWeber Communications.
And social networks have become the go-to recruiting tool for employers who are hiring, said Jobvite Inc. in its 2010 Social Recruiting Survey, with 83 percent using or planning to use the sites for recruiting.
At Verizon Wireless employees routinely use Facebook and Twitter in an official capacity to connect with customers, but access to those same sites and nearly everything else online is blocked to employees internally.
"The majority of networks are locked down to the essentials you need to do your job," said Heidi Flato, a Verizon spokeswoman.
"Most (employers) are playing catch-up on this," said Alden Parker, an employment attorney at Sacramento law firm Balsam Parker. "You have to make sure that you're not losing employee hours to these time-sucking activities."
But potential problems go beyond simple time wasting.
Disgruntled employees, dissatisfied customers and malicious hackers can seriously damage a company's image.
A 2009 survey by Internet security firm Proofpoint found that 45 percent of U.S. businesses were "highly concerned" about employees leaking information via posts on social network sites; 41 percent were similarly concerned about leaks posted on Twitter and other short-message sites.
One in three companies said they had investigated leaks related to social media postings, Proofpoint reported.
"There's proprietary information, but there's also the suggestion of disloyalty, something that doesn't portray the company in a positive light," said Parker.
"Good will is the last surviving value at a company."
With so many ways for customers to interact and comment online, protecting and managing a company's brand and reputation can be a full-time job, said Dave Marcus, director of security and research at Internet security company McAfee Labs.
"Bad guys are clever and tools are automated," Marcus said.
"This is a Web 2.0 world. You don't want to give up control of your brand."