Who Owns Your Network - You or Your Employer?

social media gag

While many of us are busy building up our professional online networks to advance our careers and business, how many of us have given a thought to who actually owns our connections?

Most of us assume that it’s our network, and we own it, but the law is quite grey around this issue.

There have already been court cases where companies have sued to have their ex employees online contact lists either deleted or handed over to the company.

The courts have ruled favourable on both sides in the handful of cases that have already been tested.

In Britain recruitment firm Hays successfully applied to have an ex employee hand over his Linkedin connections.

While in the US, Microsoft failed in a similar action against an ex employee.

As usual it all comes down to the wording in the contracts and prosecutions.

However, there are wider issues to consider.


Intellectual Property or Social Network

A companies list of clients and its contact list can rightly be considered a company asset and part of its Intellectual property so it has a right to try and protect it.

And if someone is employed to work and develop that list, then it’s quite likely that the list remains the property of the company.

On the other hand, in many professions such as journalism, public relations, lobbying and even sales, an individual’s contact list is regarded as part of their personal skill set. These people are employed as much for who they know as what they know.

Contact lists are treated as gold and often achieve mythical status, sometimes even coveted and fought over when it’s discovered that some legend of the profession is about to retire.

Even politicians have lists of who they can hit up for campaign donations and who owes them a favour.

But these lists always come with the person, not the company.

Still in other professions such as doctors, dentists, chefs and mechanics where finding a really good one is always an issue, clients will often follow the practitioner wherever they go, regardless of any company rules.

In our current period social media means everybody can develop a contact list. Indeed management Tom Peters has been saying for a long time that people these days need to manage themselves and their career as their own company.

And rightly or wrongly, the size of one’s social network is now being considered when recruiting personnel.

So is your network a personal and professional asset or is it a company asset?

(Well technically your network actually belongs to the social network you happen to have used to develop it. Read their Terms and Conditions.)

Another factor is that the line between our work and personal lives has become increasingly blurred and so separating out friends from business contacts becomes increasingly harder.


No Social, No Business and No Staff

The other big issue if course is that in today’s world connecting online and being social has become a central part of business development and marketing.

So if a company wants to succeed, then it needs to encourage virtually all employees to be social.

Of course introducing employment contracts that state any connections remain the property of the company are likely to put a dampener on the employees’ willingness to engage in social media on the company’s behalf.

This could have serious implications for the effectiveness of the company’s marketing programs.

The employee could rightfully think:  “Why should I spend time developing a network for the company if it’s not going to do me any good when I leave?”

And given that there is no such thing as job security anymore, an individual has a right to expect the connections they’ve spent years developing will remain theirs.

Furthermore, employers with restrictive social media policies risk losing potential employees, especially from younger workers who expect to take their social networks wherever they go.


Can the Law Even Keep Up?

It’s been suggested that companies need to develop clear social media policies and employment contracts, but in a rapidly evolving social world the law may always be trailing the network and its users.

And by  social networks very nature, the connections you have are publicly viewable on the net, so can they really be considered a private asset?

Some companies have tried to overcome this by having employees set up company only accounts, but you can’t do that on all social networks especially Facebook, which has very strict rules about creating one and only one identity.

While you can create multiple accounts on Linkedin, it is still against their Terms of Service. Linkedin is very clear that the service is to promote “you” and that creating separate accounts to promote a business can get you terminated.

Twitter allows you to create as many accounts as you like.

Regardless of this, if you split your network it’s likely to be much less effective in all sorts of ways, than if you have one comprehensive and cohesive network.

Complicating the matter even further is that there are already services out there that allow you to aggregate all your network connections in one area, as well as combine all your social networking accounts in one place.

So even if a company was successful in say having your Linkedin connections deleted, you could quite easily have a copy of them in another database the company was completely unaware of.

It’s an interesting debate and I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of it.


Further Reading

Ownership and portability questions loom large for departing workers who have logged out for good

Employers May Have Sweat Equity In Their Executives LinkedIn Accounts

My LinkedIn Profile: Does My Employer Own It?

The Hot Debate Over LinkedIn Profile Ownership

Can your employer claim your social media connections?

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