Once more, who owns your LinkedIn contacts?

You do, of course! But then who are you? You, in this context, are an employer. The LinkedIn contacts set up by your employees are yours. That is the implication of a recent High Court decision where a former employee was ordered to provide details of her LinkedIn password (and hence her personal as well as business contacts) to her former employer.

Employees might not be too pleased about this decision. Social media is very personal. This decision is close to expecting employees to empty their brains of all they have learned during a period of employment, pass it back to their former employer and then forget all about it. What about that which employees learned before the employment began with you (to which presumably you thought you were purchasing access). Are they to forget that too?

Then there is the question of whether or not the employee (or the employer) owns the data in the first place or whether it belongs to LinkedIn. The LinkedIn user agreement (do you read user agreements?) expressly states that the account is between LinkedIn and the individual user.

The UK decision also flies in the face of a US decision where it was decided that the availability of information in social media invalidated the company’s argument that the information was a trade secret. A similar decision was reached in another, high profile, US case: Eagle v. Morgan where the LinkedIn user agreement and personal rights overruled the employer’s claim.

There could be a social media backlash (it has happened before) to this restriction on individuals’ freedoms.

In the meantime, as we said in an earlier blog, if you want your employees to use social media accounts on behalf of your company, then it would be best to set out clearly in policies or, preferably, in contracts, who will own those accounts. Make sure too that you have administrative rights to accounts. You need to have agreed with your employees what you own before they think of leaving. Even in the Eagle case this could have tipped the balance into the employer’s favour. There the employer had no formal policies or control over content nor had it reimbursed employees for their accounts.

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