Are you prepared to hand over to your next employer all of your LinkedIn contacts and information?
It might sound far-fetched, but the courts are hearing and ruling on cases where companies believe an employee’s LinkedIn contacts are the equivalent of a trade secret. Some companies are taking legal action to prove they paid employees to develop relationships and gather information from new or existing customers and, therefore, they are entitled to ownership of the information. (Watch interview on the subject with attorney Chris Pickett, an attorney with Greensfelder, on KTVI.)
LinkedIn is a great tool for building relationships, connections and networks. If you’re a job candidate with years of previous experience in your sector or industry, you probably possess a LinkedIn network of dozens or hundreds of connections. They are people you developed relationships with while in previous jobs, in service to your community, or in college. As a condition of employment, they might ask for access to all LinkedIn contacts now and throughout your term of employment.
But do they really want contact information for your Uncle Ned who just retired as the caretaker of the monastery in Nepal?
Employers and employees can save time, money, legal costs and frustration if there’s a clear and written policy on the use of LinkedIn and other social media accounts. Currently, few companies are aware of these problems and, therefore, aren’t being proactive when dealing with employee social media accounts.
It’s also in the employer’s best interest to be mindful of the structure of LinkedIn and the nature of social media interactions. The company will quickly alienate current and prospective employees if they develop and enforce a policy that states, “Hand over your LinkedIn account and its contacts or go find another job elsewhere.”
Who wants to work for that company?
Employees are often getting paid to sell products or manage new or existing customer relationships. They might invite those people to become a connection on LinkedIn. It appears the most valuable information in this scenario is the data compiled and maintained by the company on the customer’s purchasing cycle, habits, preferences and payment history. An employee might be able to copy that information to a thumb drive, an external hard drive or a cloud-based system like box.com or dropbox.com and gain a competitive advantage with another company. But that’s clearly theft of proprietary information. LinkedIn isn’t maintained on a company’s servers and the contact information could be found in other ways. Therefore, the company doesn’t exclusively own the information, some litigants claim.
Be Proactive: Develop Policies, Communicate
All parties can prevent misunderstandings by clarifying expectations on social media accounts. Employers should develop policies so employees will know how to use LinkedIn and other social media channels and clearly define proprietary or confidential data. There may be some middle ground for employees—especially those in sales—and employers by creating a policy similar to a non-compete clause. Employers should be mindful of the necessity to possibly create additional policies for social media channels such as Instragram, Pinterest, Vine and others yet to be launched.
Social media can assist employees in delivering excellent marketing materials, product information and customer service. These areas can create, maintain or enhance customer relationships that result in substantial revenue and growth for companies. Good policies will create a clear understanding of boundaries and expectations for both employers and employees as they utilize social media for their mutual benefit.