The question of who owns your online contact is a murky issue
But a problem waiting to happen.
Personal Branding as a career management tool for all employees and job seekers has been strongly encouraged since Tom Peters urged us all to become our own Chief Marketing Officers. Today, many employees network strategically in both their personal and professional lives to create an effective career strategy and now have strong personal brands.
Personal vs Corporate
This recent development is proving to be challenging for some businesses, as they are becoming aware of a growing need to manage employee individuality within the context of their own organisational structures. Some are now playing catch up. I had two interesting conversations this week. Both made me think that there ‘s trouble brewing out there in cyber space, the ramifications of which we have yet to fully understand.
And according to a report by DLA Piper, Knowing your Tweet from your Trend, I am not alone in these concerns.
Many column inches have been given over to employee content on social media, where the nature of some tweets and Facebook updates has resulted in disciplinary action and even dismissal. But what about the unchartered territory of the ownership of contacts and connections with whom employees are engaging? Whose are they exactly? Organisations are struggling to exercise control between an employee’s business and personal life on social media, where the divide is often indistinct. This is particularly true on LinkedIn, which now has one billion members globally.
Who owns your LinkedIn connections?
The first chat last week was with an executive search associate who told me that his company was now using LinkedIn as a date base and had all but stopped using their own in-house applicant tracking system. It was simply easier to keep up with changes in potential candidates movements on-line and saved a huge amount of time for all concerned, cutting data inputting costs totally he told me. Little warning bells jingled in my ears. “What happens if the consultants leave?” I asked. The response was that the connections would be transferred to the practice partner. At that juncture, the little tinkles, became massive gongs, as the company had no contractual legal procedure in place to cover this.
A recent example
Fast forward to the end of the week. Simon was a Business Development Director with a Financial Services Consulting organisation. On Friday, he was called into his bosses office and although he was clearly aware that business was slowing down, he was shocked to find that within two hours he had been “let go” and cut off from the company server. Amongst the mountain of paperwork he has been asked to sign, is a clause asking for his LinkedIn password to transfer his connections to another sales person in the company. Now Simon is a very strategic and creative networker.
He invests a significant amount of time cultivating a meaningful network, both physically and virtually. According to Simon, his associates and superiors never committed to online networking. He maintains that his contacts have been developed over his entire career and have nothing to do with his employer. Another element he says is he is also well-connected personally via his family, high-profile school and university and is not about to hand those details over without a fight.
The company differs and is arguing that many of his connections were cultivated as an integral part of his role with them, on their time and need to be returned. Both are seeking legal advice. How do we decide if a contact is a personal or a business one and what happens if those connections are inter-changeable?
According to The Telegraph, a British court has already ordered a recruitment consultant to hand over his LinkedIn contacts to his previous employer. In this particular case the consultant had started trading on his own account before then end of his contract, which muddies the water slightly. But if the data for all his connections is in the public domain – are they “his” in the first place?
LinkedIn profiles are indeed personal online resumés, reflecting individual achievements and success stories, rather than company branding messages. Some individuals are very savvy about the use of this platform and maximise the opportunities it offers both personally and professionally often times merging the two areas. Others are lethargic and disinterested, with incomplete profiles and minimal or no activity. It is also against the terms of LinkedIn to share your account details with anyone, although that is clealry happening with V.A and social media management services taking on these activities.
DLA Piper suggests that only 14% of employers have policies in place which regulate social media activity outside the workplace. Failure to provide clarity on the ownership of connections will result in many unforseen ramifications. It will also cause confusion on the value of personal branding as a career management tool and perhaps impact the energy individuals put into online networking.
Would you take the time to build up your online connections and create these strategic alliances, if they become the “property” of your employer on departure? For me, it’s no different than asking the employee of yester year to hand over his/her Rolodex or Filofax on departure. When a client interfacing employee resigns or is fired, there has always been a commercial risk of them taking their contacts with them. This is why many organisations have non-competition clauses in their contracts. Whether contacts are actual or online in my book, will not make any real difference.
Or will we see a return of the adage – “Never mix business and pleasure” ?
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(Post updated 2023)