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Who Owns Employees’ Online Contact Lists?

Submitted by  on July 9th, 2011

Woman pointing to social network diagramSocial media is certainly becoming a popular and extremely effective way for people to engage in professional networking. Not only are employers building contacts through websites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, but they are also encouraging their employees to do the same in order to promote their company. One of the main issues that is now at the forefront of professional networking is the issue of ownership of the contacts built through social media websites.

Ownership of an employee’s professional contacts list has become a bone of contention when it comes to employees leaving an organization. Employees naturally feel that the professional networks that they have invested a great deal of time and energy building up belong to them, and that they should have the right to take these contacts with them when they move on. Employers, on the other hand, believe that whenever these professional networks are developed during working hours, and under their company’s name, that they have ownership over the contacts that employees build through their networking.

Both employers and employees present valid arguments regarding ownership of professional networks. The problem lies in the fact that, because the use of social media as a networking tool has only recently been embraced by companies, legislation is yet to catch up to these technological advancements and the impact they have in regard to business ethics.

The lawsuit filed by TEKsystems Inc against three of their former employees for allegedly breaching non-competition, non-solicitation and non-disclosure agreements through the social media website LinkedIn is set to have some major implications in regard to the use of this medium when it goes to trial on 1st August 2011. While many employers look to protect their companies through the establishment of particular policies and agreements, Renée Jackson, in a report into this current lawsuit, warns employers that courts interpret the wording of workplace covenants very specifically and that all relevant policies should make exact reference to social media.

What this means for employers is that they should seriously consider an urgent review of any communication policies that they have in place that address the issue of contact between employees, former employees, customers and any other relevant business contacts. While the outcome of the TEKsystems Inc lawsuit is yet to be determined, it is fast becoming evident that companies need to take measures to protect themselves from legal loopholes and technicalities by looking carefully at how social media is operating within their organization and referencing this medium specifically in workplace policies.

The value of professional networking through social media cannot be underestimated. While the contacts established in this way can benefit organizations significantly, business owners are well advised to accommodate such communication media in their legal documentation.


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