Does your employer own your LinkedIn contacts?

There was an interesting piece in this weekend’s FT, in the Q&A section (see here). A reader asks if the ‘contact lists’ held by his employees on LinkedIn are actually owned by his business.

This is a timely question and one that I suspect many employers would be interested in. LinkedIn, and other social networks, are being increasingly used for business networking. Either by individuals of their own initiative or through encouragement from their employer.

The former case is becoming particularly common. We’ve noted before that people use different social networks for different purposes (see post here) and it’s becoming commonplace for people to want a place where they can network with their business colleagues online, in the same way that they might use Facebook, MySpace, Flickr or another service to network with friends.

We also see the latter case. Employees specifically encouraging their staff to  build large networks on LinkedIn and the like, then to use these networks as a route to sales, or as a source of new candidates for roles. It is this latter case that the FT question was about, and the response from the lawyer may come as a surprise to many people who build up their contacts in this way.

I think you have a strong argument that you do own the “database” of contacts, particularly as the internet medium through which the sites are accessed are owned by you and the networking is done as part and parcel of the employees’ contractual duties.

The argument is that a database of contacts that an employee builds up as part of their job role will belong to the employer they are working for at the time. In these cases the database would be held on the employer premises (or more likely on their network). The lawyer suggests that contacts built up through LinkedIn could be no different, especially as they have been built during company time and through the firm’s resources (a firm laptop maybe or via the firm’s network connection).

In this case the entire contact set would be owned by the employer, much in the same way that, theoretically at least, your Rolodex and business-card collection is also owned by your employer.

Of course it would be interesting to see what would ever happen if a case like this came to trial, I suspect it may not be as easy as this to ascertain ownership of a social network contacts list.

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  1. Kari:

    I’m really curious to know how exactly it would work if an employee left a company, and the employer used this argument to claim ownership of the former employee’s network. Would the employee keep their profile, but remove certain contacts from their network (as specified by the employer)? Would the employee have to build a completely new profile upon leaving the company?

  2. Stuart Glendinning Hall » Blog Archive » Are employers bleeding social capital?:

    [...] PS: And of course this was backed up  was the recent case in the UK where an ex-employee of recruitment firm Hays was ordered to disclose details of his profile at social networking site LinkedIn. As Roderick Parks from Trampoline Systems said on this issue said at the time on my blog, these “developments represent the first signs of an impending turf war over social capital”. Of course employers may not be saavy to realise they are losing substantial social capital as individuals get away with taking their online contacts, another risk to consider as web 2.0 becomes even more embedded in the workplace. Wonder where they go for help in this regard? I suggest Trampoline Systems is a good place to start. There’s also discussion of this issue on Fresh Networks. [...]

  3. David Wallace:

    An interesting discussion and one certain to evolve as the value of social networks get tormented by ROI tests or other metrics. It’s particularly relevant for me at ZoomInfo, where people often try to “own” online profiles — not realizing they cannot control where data about them appears on the web. And we are introducing a plugin for Outlook called Zipi (shameless plug alert which lets you share business contacts only — by ignoring webmail addresses — if you want to EXPAND your network beyond people you already know. Who owns the contacts may be less relevant than whether they have value in building a) the company’s turnover; b) an individual’s career or c) all the above.

    Ultimately, this will come to resemble other policies, just as ome companies retain frequent flyer miles for business travel if they were racked up on company time. It’s not right or wrong, legal or illegal. The programs just need to be communicated clearly, applied consistently and not changed without warning in some corporate grab for personal assets.

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