If you have ever ready any of our previous blog posts, then you know that we are huge advocates of networking, both to advance your career and to advance yourself professionally. I spotted an interesting article in Forbes today discussing who owns your LinkedIn contacts. As with most legal questions, the real answer is “it depends,” but raising the question made the hairs on my neck stand up. What if you don’t actually own the contacts you have built up on LinkedIn?
When you read the article, you realize that the issue really has to do with competition and the ill-defined corporate rules of social networking. A recent UK court ruling insisted an employee turn over his LinkedIn contacts to his former employer. Including proof he had not signed them as clients for his new company. If you are planning to change jobs or start your own operation and you are considering stealing your company’s customers, partners, and vendors, then your LinkedIn contacts may be an issue, since your contact list could be considered a company asset. As the article states:
It “highlights the tension between businesses encouraging employees to use social networking websites for work but then claiming that the contacts remain confidential information at the end of their employment,” according to the Telegraph newspaper.
While it’s unclear exactly what transpired between an employer and employee based on press reports, one thing is clear: both employers and employees need to start considering ownership of social media contacts. Paying attention to the documents you sign when you are hired – or reviewing them after the fact if need be – is becoming more important for all employees.
The U.S. courts seem to differ on some of these same issues. Recently a New York district court ruled that LinkedIn contacts could not be considered a trade secret, but again, every situation is different so it depends.
Your best defense is to get make sure the rules surrounding your use of social media are clearly spelled out with your employer. The Forbes article cites some interesting statistics from a recent DLA Piper study showing that almost 40 percent of employees have connected with a colleague or business contact on Facebook or LinkedIn, 21 percent of employers have had to discipline an employee about inappropriate social media use, and only 25 percent of companies actually have a written social media policy. Social media use in the workplace is still vaguely defined.
The rules of common sense and simple ethics certainly apply. If you use your social media outlets to steal clients from a former boss, that’s wrong and probably illegal. If your job in sales or marketing relies on your social media contacts, then a case could be made that those contacts are corporate property. However, if you above board and careful in your ethical use of social media, then you are probably in the clear.
As a precaution, you should back up your LinkedIn contacts in any case. Be sure to save your contact information in another database or file format, such as a .CSV file, in case you lose your LinkedIn contacts and have to start over.
Your best defense is a good offense. Go to your company and clarify the policy. Determine in advance who owns your online contacts. If there is a question, consider creating two social media accounts so you can continue to build your personal network of contacts. But whatever you do, make sure that you can maintain those networking contacts. They are your insurance for the future.