Ownership of social media

Jan 20, 2020 | Business Principles

Following our previous article about monitoring social media, we do get asked sometimes about ownership on social media. Monitoring is one thing, but what if your employee sails off into the sunset with a bunch of contacts they’ve built up while being employed by you?

Corporate accounts

You may have a company Facebook or LinkedIn page, or Twitter account, and it’s usually pretty clear to establish that they belong to your business. If you don’t have these accounts, it may well be worth obtaining accounts in your company name anyway, so that no other similar businesses can do so and so that if and when you do want to start becoming active on social media, the account names you want are already sorted.

If you are active, or when you become active, be careful about who in your company is responsible for social media content. Aside from obviously in a general sense making sure they know what they are doing, also take precautions in terms of security and reputational damage. Retailer HMV learned this lesson when the social media person tweeted about redundancy procedures, and several other businesses have found similar – disgruntled employee goes on Twitter rampage complaining about his/her boss isn’t something you want…. So make sure at least two people have access to the social media account and know passwords, and if you get any sense that there might be a problem arising, take precautions beforehand rather than allowing an employee to be going through redundancy or similar but still having unfettered access to social media on your behalf.

What about personal accounts?

We’d always advise keeping personal accounts and work entirely separate where at all possible, but depending on the nature of your business, this may be challenging – if for example tweeting as themselves is important for someone’s role. You can issue guidelines on use of social media, personal or work-related, and have a firm policy on anything which may cause damage to your business’s reputation, but if someone uses their personal social media profile in the course of their work with you, and builds up contacts through it which they may then want to take elsewhere, ownership becomes an issue.

LinkedIn is the classic example. Someone’s profile is personal to them, but what about their connections and contacts? Do they belong to the individual or the business? Normally employers only get rights over databases if they’ve made a substantial investment in them or if the database has been created in the course of someone’s employment. The trouble with LinkedIn is that connections can and do come from all sorts of places, so although some of an employee’s connections might have come about purely in the course of their employment, claiming ownership of those contacts is likely to be tricky.

Where you might have more success is if an employee uploads a database or list of client details or similar to LinkedIn in order to create connections.  Recruitment firm Hays successfully obtained a court order requiring an ex employee to disclose connections when he was suspected of using confidential client information and being in breach of restrictive covenants in his employment contract.

What to do?

Although some companies consider drastic action like banning employees from LinkedIn or other social media sites, or require deleting profiles on leaving employment, realistically these options aren’t really feasible or enforceable. However we would suggest considering the following:

  • Have a strong social media policy with guidance on use of specific sites, including use of contacts and connections
  • Don’t allow work use of personal social media accounts where possible
  • Consider referencing social networking activities in any restrictive covenants in your employment contracts
  • Consider requiring employees to add connections made in the course of their employment to your in-house database, that way you at least retain the information even if the employee also has it.
  • Take appropriate steps in terms of your IT provision to ensure bulk uploads of data are impossible.

If you need further assistance on the ownership of social media, do get in touch.