The Hot Debate Over LinkedIn Profile Ownership

LinkedIn

Photo credit: Shekhar_Sahu / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Question: If you use LinkedIn at your workplace, who retains ownership of your profile, and all of your connections?

Answer: It may not be you.

In an article published June 2008, www.telegraph.co.uk reporter Richard Tyler revealed, “A former employee of recruitment firm Hays has been ordered by the High Court to hand over business contacts built up on his personal page of the social networking site LinkedIn. The decision is one of the first to highlight 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.”

The law here is very grey; however, most employment contracts state that, if you leave the job for any reason, everything and anything you used during the course of employment, from software and hardware to tools and office supplies, belongs to the employer.

The murky argument is then raised: If you create, maintain and build a hefty LI profile while employed, can you take it with you when you go? In other words, to whom do all of your contacts belong?  Not to mention, the murky waters become downright sticky when factoring in the typical non-compete agreement.

In the HR world in particular, this is a question that deserves deep consideration. If the employee retains ownership, he or she is essentially walking out the door with valuable company contacts. If the employer retains ownership, the employee may be less than enthusiastic about social networking during work hours, thinking “What’s in it for me?”

Some employees come to the employer with added value ‘built in’, specifically because of the networks they have built. LinkedIn is, of course, the perfect place to grow a budding network. This begs yet another question: do those connections then represent peer relationships, or company-to-prospect/company-to-client relationships? Who decides?

Currently, it is the employee’s responsibility to understand network ownership policies that may exist within the workplace. The problem is, in most companies, they don’t exist. As employers work to catch up with the effects of a speeding Internet, no doubt new policies will be crafted to address these issues. For example, while the non-compete addresses the time limit within which the former employee cannot reach out to former clients, can we assume this also covers relationships defined by social interaction? How would an employer regulate such a thing? And what about connections the employee built prior to employment…where does the employer draw the line on which connections must be “handed over”?

Five Ways Employees Can Protect Themselves

1.    Set up a separate email account to which all LinkedIn emails and connection requests are copied.

2.    Export your contacts to a CSV file as a backup of the names and email addresses of your connections.

3.    Export your profile as a PDF, so you don’t lose your recommendations.

4.    Do number 2 & 3 at regular intervals.

5.    Nurture relationships with people! A list of contacts on paper is meaningless without the engagement to support it.

Employers should ask themselves, not “Who owns the connections?”, but “What can I do to develop relationships with these connections, whether the employee stays or leaves?” If both employer and employee remember the Golden Rule of LinkedIn – quality, not quantity – perhaps this debate will one day have a harmonious ending.

Victoria Ipri is CEO of Modello Media, Inc., an e-marketing strategy firm based in suburban Philadelphia, PA. She welcomes your questions and comments on this forum, or contact her directly at: ModelloMedia@gmail.com

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Comments:
  • David Cohen
    Reply

    Victoria,

    You bring up interesting question that I’d never thought about. I just “assumed” it belonged to me. I’m glad to see that I’m already using a personal email account and not a work related one. Thankfully my last company did require that I turn it over. Do you recommend bringing this topic up during the negotiation stage of accepting a job?

    Dave

    October 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm
  • Mark
    Reply

    I keep on LI information far away from work accounts. I use my personal email to do so and will not leave contact information for an employer. Without the relationships they will do just as well cold calling numbers out of the phone book. If they want access to my connections then they need to retain my services.

    October 19, 2010 at 9:22 pm
  • Victoria Ipri
    Reply

    Dave, the answer to this question probably depends on the potential employer. For example, let’s say you take a high profile sales position and the employer requires you to network on LinkedIn. No doubt, when you leave the company, those thousands of contacts belong to the employer (just as if you made a sales call in person…the lead and any potential work belongs to the employer). But the employer cannot demand control over personal relationships. A non-disclosure agreement may dictate whether you can ‘do business’ with a contact, but cannot tell you whether you may stay ‘friends’. This is why this issue is so sticky and difficult to regulate.

    October 20, 2010 at 5:04 pm
  • Victoria Ipri
    Reply

    Interesting viewpoint, Mark, and one I’m sure others have adopted as well. As I mentioned to David, the ‘right’ solution to this dilemma will likely vary among individuals and industries. Unless and until regulations are devised that work for all, the best defense is a great offense: Be sure you clearly understand your employer’s rules.

    October 20, 2010 at 5:06 pm
  • Steven Spenser
    Reply

    Anything you create on your employer’s computer while using your employer’s Internet access belongs to your employer. Courts repeatedly have held that employees have no right to electronic privacy at work (and very little overall privacy rights). This means that your employer is legally allowed to monitor your e-mail and online activity while at work. Given how much–and how easily–a disgruntled employee can adversely affect a corporation’s online brand, reputation, etc., monitoring what employees are doing and saying online is something every employer needs to do. Keep in mind that the personal fone calls you make at work are also subject to monitoring, as well.

    If you created your personal LinkedIn profile before coming to your current employer, then you retain ownership of it no matter where you access it. (Assuming, of course, that you created it on a computer you owned, and not some previous employer’s computer.) Copyright protection extends to anything you post to the Web, as long as you created it on your own computer first. I always compose and save my LI comments as a separate document, and only then cut-and-paste them into my browser. This makes me the originating author and preserves my copyright.

    Your employer may be able to argue that any *content* you add to your LI profile while using your employer’s computer and Internet connexion belongs to her. But expanding your LI connexions is activity, not content, so plainly no employer can claim to own the LI connexions you added while employed.

    If you want to avoid all this, the simple solution is to only access LI from your personal laptop, mobile device or home.

    Bottom Line: Personal activity should never be conducted in the workplace.

    October 21, 2010 at 4:10 pm
  • Tony King
    Reply

    Until recently I worked for Hays, used as an example above, and can tell you that they have little consistency in how they manage the LI accounts of leavers. However, their aim is to take control of people’s accounts and, I am told, they have recently forced leavers to close down their LI account while they watch!
    My personal view is that an organisation has a joint right to those connections which you forged while employed. Most employers would expect you to enter such details onto the corporate CRM or lead-tracking software anyway. However, once you leave they cannot expect you to break off communication with those people forever (although your non-compete may prohibit communication in the short-term).
    In short, both parties have a right to the information and it is how they plan to communicate with those people that will make the difference. So ensure you copy the info into the CRM but make real connections to those people and there can only be one winner.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:37 am

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