Who really owns your social media contacts?

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Social media is blurring the lines between our personal and professional lives, but does this mean when an employee leaves your business you have a right to their social media followers?

I posed this question as in a recent article LinkedIn blurring demarcation lines, and there was discussion over whether an employer has any claim to an employee’s LinkedIn profile or contacts. I am not a lawyer and these legal issues have yet to be tested, however, it is legitimate to explore these complexities.

Although the claim is most likely relevant to all social media platforms, this issue is particularly significant to LinkedIn. As a business related social network site, it is mainly used by professionals to connect, network and exchange information, ideas and opportunities.

When connections are built around the employee’s role and employment using company resources, the issue is challenging. In some industries, contact lists are commercially sensitive and where as in the past these particular lists would have been confidential, social media is now blurring the lines between what qualifies as personal and professional activities.

Here are three questions to pose:

  • Can an employer tell an employee to remove their contacts from their profile when they resign?
  • If the employee has invested personal time building these contacts who do they belong to?
  • Can an employer stop an employee from advertising that they are interested in “career opportunities”?

These are issues that are relevant to both the employer and employee and highlights the fine balance between employers encouraging employees to use social media platforms for business but then claiming the information as belonging to the employer. Whether an employer can claim ownership for the profile, the actual account or the contacts is undecided. However, in an English court, an employee (who resigned to start his own consulting business) was ordered to turn over all of his LinkedIn contacts to his former employer. The future may hint that the contacts could more likely belong to the employer.

These are challenging issues, which will become much more widespread as the rise and popularity of social media increases and as it becomes more ingrained in business. A solid social media policy (including policies for individual platforms) may become more significant in a business environment so that the ground rules are clear and potentially alleviate confusion.

As time passes these concerns will become more significant in a highly competitive world.

  • It often happens that people quit and start as a consultant is the same industry they worked in.
    They use the contacts they received through their employment and that is always sensitive to the former employer. The contacts may not always be on LinkedIn.
    It is interesting question: who owns your contacts you have at work, both in social media and in real life?

  • Good question Anna.

    At the end of the day, LinkedIn is your professional ‘personal’ profile. I don’t think people should empty their contacts book just because they’re leaving an employment. Relationships shouldn’t be there to be turned on and off depending on where you are and when you need them. Plus, if the company also has strong relationships with your contacts, then they will also keep them as contacts. Obviously, people who follow the company page will remain ‘contacts’ of the company, but if someone choses to connect with you personally/professionally (whether that be because of your position, your expertise, your personality, etc.), I don’t see why you would need to erase them from your list when you depart… My two cents worth. 😉

  • The legals may well be unclear, but in practical terms, there is really very little any company can do to stop an individual ex-employee contacting members of their network, whether a social media network or any other form of contact list.
    Any halfway smart sales professional who plans to leave a company will download contact lists before resigning. I’ve known some who take backups even when they have no plans to move on, just in case they are asked to leave! Smartness also comes into play in how the person chooses to use that list.
    Who ‘owns’ the list, or at least who is able to get any meaningful value out of it, is very much in the opinion of the individuals on it, in terms of whether they choose to accept any future contact from the ex-employee, the ex-employing company, or both.

    That said, one piece of advice which makes sense to me is that as an employee you should always make sure you use a personal email address as the main address on any social media account or profile you set up. Helps to demarcate that it is yours and personal rather than the company’s.