Does Your Boss Own Your Social Media?

Your social media account is worth money -- and companies are fighting to keep it.

In a shaky economy, there’s no insurance for job security. But if there’s one thing you can count on, who you know is just as important as what you know. Before Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, if you were job hunting, the number-one piece of advice was, “Hit up your network” — ask your friends, ask your family, ask your friends and family to ask their friends and family.

Today, social networks are making it easier to collect, organize and connect with contacts. Those valuable connections — every job call, every freelance project, every business lunch or drink — take time and effort to build, but if you’re really good at networking, you can make it pay off. People have taken their careers to new heights with well-placed status updates, influential tweets and even clever Vine mini-videos. In this fast-paced and changing job market, your Rolodex is the one and only constant in your career.

But what if you don’t own your contacts? What if your boss does? Even after you leave? That very idea is raising concerns in the workplace and in courtrooms.

Networks: A Valued Asset

As mobile devices blur work and life boundaries, it’s a surprise friction hasn’t emerged sooner. At best, companies set ad hoc social media policies, and at worst, they require you to push corporate products — to “like” business pages and post links to friends and families. Still, some firms outright ban you from posting about work. In short, it’s a mess out there, but legal precedents are trying to clear it up.

A British court, for example, ordered Mark Ions, a former consultant for Leeds-based Hays Specialist Recruitment, to return all his LinkedIn contacts to his former company, including contracts and receipts on work obtained through his network. After leaving to start his own consulting firm, Hays claims he used clients obtained during his employment to drum up business.

“As advances in social networking sites and technology generally become more and more sophisticated, so too are the legal strategies necessary to protect our data,” a company spokesperson told the Telegraph. But Ions alleged Hays encouraged him to use LinkedIn to scour for customers, and that once those contacts accepted his invitations, they belonged to him.

The case is the first instance of a court-ordered handover of a social network account. And now, in the U.K. at least, your LinkedIn profile is more likely to belong to your boss than to you — especially if it includes customers and vendors from your job. Companies are beginning to see social networks as business assets, and as their employees amass friends and contacts numbering in the thousands, they’re keen to keep those followers, even if you move on.

But what about the U.S.? Similar cases have bubbled up, but so far, the outcomes have been a mixed bag.

Gadget review site PhoneDog.com, for example, wrangled with former employee Noah Kravitz over his 22,000-strong company-associated Twitter account. When he left PhoneDog, he changed his handle to his name and continued to tweet under the account. The company then sued him for $340,000 in damages, according to the New York Times, arguing that it provided the resources to grow his account, so it had a claim to it. But the court, ultimately, couldn’t decide on the value of the followers, and the parties came to a confidential settlement.

In another legal squabble, banking education company Edcomm asked its employees to use LinkedIn, even giving them a template and e-mail account to use. After Edcomm was acquired, however, it ousted its founder, Linda Eagle. When she tried to log in, she discovered the company had changed her password, preventing her from accessing her network. She sued, claiming Edcomm misappropriated her account, but the company countered, saying that it had the right, since it owned her account and all its employees’ profiles.

Last month, the verdict came down: Edcomm didn’t own Eagle’s account, and actually invaded her privacy, reported Ars Technica. In other words, if you live in the U.S., you still own your account… for now.

One legal victory, however, isn’t a sign that your account is safe. By the time cases hit the courtroom, rival services often come down the pike, making the point of tension irrelevant. What these lawsuits underscore, though, is that social media has become a valuable commodity – it’s intellectual property that companies are willing to fight over. If you have thousands of friends and followers, it isn’t just a numbers anymore — it’s a goldmine.

So don’t be surprised if your company sets policies and lays claim to your corporate account. If you own a business, meanwhile, hammer out a policy in writing — clear rules are the name of the game. Social media is an important part of success, and as networks, habits and technologies change, whether you’re a worker or a boss, those assets are worth something.

But as work and personal lives intertwine, the idea of policies, though helpful as a legal preventative, is becoming ineffective. If you’re like most, your social profile is a mish-mash of old friends, work acquaintances, college alumni, co-workers, distant family relatives, real-deal friends and loved ones. So trying to separate professional from personal is often easier said than done.

Still, if you’ve built up a large list of contacts, it’s wise to keep in touch with them the traditional way — by e-mail or even, gasp, by phone or in person. After all, to build an effective network, you need to go beyond collecting friends and followers. If you want to create a truly portable Rolodex, one that goes where you move, you need to strengthen those ties. Old-fashioned networking still counts for something, even in the age of social media. Just don’t be like this guy:


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