16 June 2008

Who owns your online social networking contacts?

A recent judgement in the UK courts has forced a former employee of Hays to hand over details of the business contacts build up through LinkedIn.com whilst he was employed by them.

The decision is one of the first in the UK to show the tension between businesses encouraging their employees to use social networking websites whilst trying to claim that the contacts should remain confidential at the end of their employment.

Hays alleged that the employee used his LinkedIn network to approach clients for his own rival agency, which he set up a few weeks before leaving them. The defence was that Hays encouraged employees to use the site, so once these contacts were in the public domain they were free for him to use. The court didn’t agree and the defendant was ordered to disclose all documents, including invoices and emails, that showed any use by of his LinkedIn contacts by him and any business obtained from them.

For many people, the idea that your employer can jump upon the networks that you might have built up on Facebook or Linkedin.com is pretty unthinkable – after all, most profiles contain a mixture of colleagues and friends built up throughout an entire career. However, the issue here appears to be the contacts themselves and how they were uploaded to the sites – i.e. straight from Mr Ion’s work address book.

For me, this is an excellent example of the way in which corporate life is adjusting to a new medium and defining the boundaries of its use. After all, who owns these contacts? You wouldn’t expect to be able to photocopy and exploit your company’s client list if you were leaving, so why should uploading it to a social networking site be regarded as acceptable?

It takes time for business to form and adjust to the new codes of conduct required by emerging online tools. The widespread introduction of email to offices more than ten years ago involved a similar process. Many people wrongly regarded work email as a) private and b) somehow less “important” than written communication. Neither was the case, but it took a number of high-profile casualties for a more widespread appreciation of these facts to develop. Nowadays, most people use email very differently and much more cautiously – indiscreet email can get you into a lot of trouble.

The spread of blogging also involved a number of casualties at first, with many people somehow believing that what they write outside of work would not have an impact on their jobs. Waterstones’ sacking of Joe Gordon in 2005 for consistently berating his employers online was the first high-profile case in the UK. Most bloggers are now aware of the fact that you really shouldn’t write anything that you wouldn’t want your bosses to see.

Your use of social media does not happen in isolation to your employer. It’ll take time for the boundaries between your personal professional networking and your employer’s ownership of your labours to be fully defined.

Filed under Strategy.