For whatever reason, as a society, we like scary stories. Whether it’s generations-old campfire stories or urban legends about organ thieves, we can’t help ourselves. Like all things, the Internet has been an accelerant to these scary stories, especially when it comes to scary stories about the Internet itself.

Beyond the weekly (fake) Morgan Freeman death scares (why is it always Morgan Freeman?!), one of the biggest fears flying around the Internet is how our increased social media use impacts us at work. The Social Habit data from Edison Research shows that half of social media users who work, access Facebook while working. This creates a challenging dynamic for both employees and employers alike.

Should employees be able to access social media at work? Should employers be monitoring employees’ personal social media profiles? Do we need new policies?

Many businesses today approach social media as a threat to employee productivity and corporate security. That’s why some avoid dealing with it altogether by blocking social media sites at work or implementing policies that have the same effect. Many employees feel their privacy invaded as well, wondering why their boss cares about what they say on Facebook.

One could look at all of this and say that things have changed dramatically. Or have they?

Let’s start with social media for employers. When your employees want to spend time on LinkedIn networking is it really that different than when they go to a chamber of commerce lunch on company time? If they have a status update endorsing a particular political candidate or stance, is it any different than when they have a sign in their yard? Moreover, you can’t prevent employees from saying something stupid online anymore than you can prevent them from saying something stupid Friday night at the corner tap.

This wake-up call holds true for employees as well. Though they seem like very personal settings, Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites, are not your private little corner of the Internet. Your interactions here are less like a private conversation with a friend and more like a conversation with a friend broadcast on jumbo-tron for all to see.

Your co-workers can potentially walk up behind you while you’re talking about them at the office or on Facebook. Both are “public” places. Social media still demands social etiquette. This is why many advise individuals not to share things on social sites that they wouldn’t want their employers to see.

While employees need a better understanding of changing dynamics and etiquette, businesses necessarily need to approach this from a policy standpoint. Rather than adopting an “ostrich approach” with their head buried in the sand pretending social media isn’t here to stay, internal stakeholders need to develop forward-thinking practices that embrace social and append existing codes of conduct to include communications “online and off.”

Being inclusive of social media use at work also paves the way for other business benefits. In his new book Youtility, Jay Baer cautions employers not to overlook what he calls a business’ “single largest marketing engine” — their employees. Unless you’re a mega brand such as Best Buy or Walmart, chances are your brand’s social media connections are far fewer than the sum total of all of your employees’ connections. When you are open about social media, you encourage your people to help spread the word.

Technology has disrupted the workplace before. Employers once worried about personal phone calls (or worse, long distance!) followed by email and Internet use after that. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Fear and paranoia among employers and employees always delays progress, while acceptance, sound policy, and respect open new doors for both parties.

Photo via Flickr user ttarasiuk