LinkedIn – employment law v reality

I came across this article recently on the issues of ownership and social media accounts, primarily the professional contacts made during the course of employment through LinkedIn.

The law and the practical reality aren’t meeting anywhere close on this issue.

Let’s take me, as an example. I have around 1500 LinkedIn connections. Some of these are people I know really well, I work with them closely now, or they are former colleagues. Some of them I’ve met just once or twice. We’ve met at a networking event or they have heard me speaking at a conference and one of us has pinged over a follow up connection request. Some are connections from other social media networks like twitter. Some of these connections I have never met at all, but I’ve LinkedIn with them anyway because we share something in common, usually HR stuff. Some of them I connected with online because of a shared interest, and we are now friends. About 1000 of these connections I had before I joined my current employer. The rest are more recent additions. I’m pretty sure these are my connections, and not my employers.

Of course you can try and build something into the Contract of Employment about ownership. By all means start a debate about what is the property of the employer, what is in the course of employment, what amounts to confidential commercial information. Or even as this article suggests, some restrictive covenants are now being drafted to include reference to a change of LinkedIn status amounting to solicitation of clients.

Whatever the law says on restrictive covenants, whatever the contract of employment seeks to enforce, this is a losing battle.

There are simply too many practical issues to get over. How do you define who owns which connections when they have been made spanning more than one employer? What amounts to solicitation when you can tweet everything about your products and services in less than 140 characters and anyone can follow you? How can you restrict people from updating their status any more than you can updating their paper copy CV? How can you actually stand over someone and make them block their followers, delete their connections, unfriend people on Facebook?

Yes, there is recent case law on the ownership of LinkedIn connections, but before all the HR folk rush to update the Contract of Employment, it was about the ownership of a work related group, rather than an individual account which is very different.

Make me delete a LinkedIn connection before I leave? Fine. I’ll find them on Twitter or Google+ instead, if I’m not hooked up with them there already.

Make me set up an employer controlled account and hand over the password? Fine. I will just set up another one when I leave and just connect with people all over again.

Because you can’t stop people knowing people. Just like you couldn’t in the days when employers worried about the sales guy stealing the rolodex (if you remember what one of those is, of course).

We live in an increasingly open and transparent world. We think nothing now of putting our entire CV online for people to view. We think nothing of tweeting or sharing our thoughts with the world. Or our followers at least. Work and personal is increasingly blurred.

Today, you can find pretty much anyone you want to find. You can connect with them in multiple ways. Because we are all social now.

Employers – I’m sorry but you are just going to have to deal with it.

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