LinkedIn promotes itself as a business network and has a goal of hosting every businessman on the planet! Since most business people work in and with businesses, many people use their accounts for both personal use and professional use. Often, people connect with customers, prospects, clients, and colleagues on LinkedIn.
Some people access LinkedIn from their office computers or business phones — sometimes on office time, sometimes on their own; sometimes with the blessing of the company, others times not.
But is there the possibility that your employer can claim that your LinkedIn account belongs to them and not to you?
LinkedIn says NO in their User Agreement.
But, as some publicized court cases have shown, employers sometimes argue, Yes. That is our information, our account, and it belongs to us. Although these cases may be extreme examples, there are probably many other conflicts, particularly when an employee has quit, was fired, or otherwise stopped working for a company. To my knowledge, nobody has researched how often this conflict comes up.
Where’s the Conflict?
It’s your LinkedIn Contacts that are likely the point of contention. After all, without contacts, the account is basically a hollow shell. However, intangibles such as social media good will, reputation, and activity come into the mix, too.
The people most likely to have their Contacts at risk are in top management, sales, PR, and marketing, including social media marketing and promotion. In some cases, the company may have hired you because you have a large social network across the different platforms.
Your contacts might not only be business prospects, but they might be argued to be proprietary company information. If a person is fired or quits, they might be prohibited from doing business with their own contacts. Or the business may want to keep the relationship gong by having somebody else maintain the account, possibly even keeping the same name and contact info–stealing your LinkedIn identity.
Likewise, if you leave a company to start a competing business, your employer may object if you try to take clients with you. If they are your LinkedIn contacts, the company might want to take over your account.
Social Media Activism for Corporations
If your employer is active in social media, they may ask you to use your LinkedIn (and other) accounts to spread info about the company or to contact potential and current clients. On Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Pinterest, they should be able to set up separate corporate accounts. Although they can set up a LinkedIn corporate page, they need to connect somebody’s private account to manage it. (In contrast, if the company has a recruiting account on LinkedIn, that might include corporate profiles for the employees, separate from their private accounts.)
Even if your account is private and existed before you started working for that company, they might argue that the LinkedIn content is their proprietary information, especially if you network with customers and potential customers.
If your company is bought by another, the purchase agreement might include all lists of customers and prospects. If so, the purchasers may argue that your LinkedIn account is part of the purchase, whether or not you were a party to the agreement.
As more companies encourage their employees to help promote and recruit on social media, the more this conflict will come to the fore. Fortunately, these companies should have social media policies that spell this out in advance. But employers can unilaterally change their social media policies, too.
This is where some businesses come in conflict with LinkedIn’s User Agreement.
On other social media, such as Twitter, both people and businesses can have multiple accounts, and some people even keep separate accounts for private and business networking. Google+ requires every person to use their real name, and each account is associated with a profile and a Gmail account. However, a user can have more than one Gmail account and associate a Google+ account with each email address. You can also merge Google+ accounts and transfer your G+ circles and contacts.
LinkedIn accounts, in contrast, must be owned by a real person using their real name, and each person can only have one account. Also, only the account owner (the person, not a business) is allowed to access the account. Even sharing your password with an assistant or family member is a violation of the User Agreement, and is grounds for closing the account or other administrative action. If you should open more than one LinkedIn account (by accident or design), you cannot merge them; nor can you transfer Contacts from one account to another.
Who’s to Judge?
Another problem comes with legal jurisdiction. Although at least fourteen U.S. states have laws prohibiting employers from demanding passwords for their employee’s social media services, others have no prohibition. LinkedIn claims members in over 200 countries. Many countries have few consumer protections, and a court may or may not regard the LinkedIn User Agreement as binding.
The few cases that have gone to court have been all over the map. Literally.
A court in the United Kingdom ruled that one person’s LinkedIn Contacts belonged to the company in Whitmar Publications Ltd. v Gamage. In Pennsylvania, in Eagle v. Morgan, a company took over a former employee’s LinkedIn account and profile after they fired her, changing the password and profile info, but keeping the original custom URL and appropriating elements of the former employee’s identity for several weeks. The court eventually ruled for the former employee.
Outside of court, many employers have developed social media policies that employees must sign and agree to. When an employee is let go, the company may enforce non-piracy, non-compete and non-solicitation agreements. In such a case, who has control of your contacts might be less clear.
Even if your employer directed you to create a LinkedIn account and connect with potential customers, however, LinkedIn’s User Agreement says that the user owns the account. If brought to court, the employer may need to prove that the contact information is, indeed, proprietary information and not just a list of names and phone numbers, which is NOT proprietary.
Whatever the law says, it can be devastating to a LinkedIn user, who has spent years building up a network and developing relationships, only to have their account yanked away when they need it most: when they are laid off and need to find work. Obviously, having to deal with looking for a job and simultaneously being involved in a lawsuit is not a situation anybody wants to be in.
Nevertheless, possession is nine-tenths of the law. And, absent a legal ruling, possession of a LinkedIn account might be determined by who has the password.
In our next post, we’ll show how you may inadvertently give your password to your employer and how you can protect it. We’ll also have a short bibliography on how to learn more about the law and LinkedIn accounts.
Probably obligatory legal stuff: The author of this article is NOT (and never wants to be) an attorney and is not trained in law. Confusing this article with actual legal advice would be a horrible mistake.
Young Business Man (running with computer) used courtesy of “Photostock” and FreeDigitalPhotos.net