One in five people in the UK are using instant messaging at work but the majority of firms are failing to regulate its use.
Instant messaging can be addictively time-consuming
In an online survey commissioned by security firm Akonix, a quarter of users admitted they see IM as the perfect vehicle for office gossip.
Another quarter say they have used it to send something their boss wouldn't approve of.
And 16% have sent or received sensitive company information via IM.
Spam and viruses
IM is most popular with users aged 18-29 and 80% of people in this age group say they use it to chat to friends and family while at work.
The majority of IM services - 74% according to research firm Gartner - find their way on to office PCs as a result of employees downloading them for their own purposes.
There was a risk in having software installed on PCs that has not been vetted by the IT department, said Bill Harmer, managing director of Akonix.
Most firms do not regulate the use of IM in the office
IM could bring big benefits to firms, he said, but it needed policies to regulate its use and technical solutions to prevent IM being targeted by spammers and virus writers.
Sixty-two percent of firms admitted to having no policy or technology in place to manage or block IM.
"The findings of this survey should be a wake-up call to UK companies. IM should be embraced but protect your business adequately or the consequences can be severe," said Mr Harmer.
Research firm Gartner predicts that, by 2006, the number of IM messages sent will outweigh the number of e-mail messages.
Need to archive
The YouGov survey found that, as well as being a fun application, IM can be an invaluable business tool especially when it comes to improving communications with customers or partners, gathering information or maintaining contacts.
OFFICE WORKERS AND IM
25% have used IM to say something they boss wouldn't approve of
16% use it to send or receive sensitive company information
25% use it for office gossip
80% of 18-29 year-olds use IM to chat to friend and family
25% of 18-29 year-olds have used IM to download music and film trailers at work
Mr Harmer urged firms to make sure that all IM messages were archived, especially in the light of government regulations that demanded company data was stored for longer periods of time.
The survey was carried out by online pollsters YouGov. Two thousand UK residents took part in the study.