5 ways to stop employees stealing your Rolodex

Organisations have always been worried about their employees taking with them valuable contacts and information when they leave.

In the old days, it was mostly about taking the hard copy lists; names and addresses of leads and potential leads, customers past and present.  What now exists within an App, somewhere in the Cloud, and on the device in our pockets, used to be in a Rolodex*, a book of business cards or in a lever arch file.  Or of course inside someone’s head.  We haven’t found a way of downloading that.  Just yet.

Now, the issue has moved to social media.  The challenge presented by LinkedIn, and indeed any social media platform used for professional purposes, is no different from the one that has always been with us.  Employees leave, and they take stuff with them. Sometimes what they take is knowledge and information.  Sometimes, it is copies of documents. Sometimes it is other people, and occasionally, it is the stuff from the stationery cupboard.  But the real concern for most organisations is still the customer information.

If the clickbait advice genre had been around in the 1980s, you can bet that there would have been a headline just like the one at the top of this post.  Maybe some internal guidelines suggestions too, about how employees within their notice period should not be allowed within 15 feet of the photocopier, just in case they run off one extra to take home.

Unfortunately the topic of social media in the workplace, and LinkedIn in particular, continues to generate advice of a risk averse and impractical nature. Advice that, if applied, does the reputation of HR no favours.

Let’s play this out in real life for a moment. I turn up on day one at my new company.  I have an established network across several social media platforms, including a healthy number of connections on LinkedIn.  My new employer then declares that anyone I might connect with in the future ‘belongs’ to them, and, as I have recently seen suggested, I am required to delete these connections when I leave the business, at some unknown future point.

Such advice is as unworkable as it is unreasonable.  It shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how the social world actually works.

On the practical front, what is going to stop the future me from reconnecting with these people all over again once deleted?  What stops me from following them on Twitter, adding them to a G+ circle or sending them a friend request on Facebook?  And why single out LinkedIn?  Much of my own HR networking is on Twitter.  If we take this argument forward then should I record everyone who follows me during the course of my employment and presumably ask them to unfollow me upon my resignation?  An employer would have an almost impossible task of proving when connections had been made.  And so on.

Here’s the thing.  In the social world, you get the benefit of the connections made by your employees, within your employment and elsewhere.  Social has by its very nature blurred the lines between work and personal.  Taking an overly restrictive approach fails to recognise the many benefits of social business and social employees.  Social can support your brand message and your marketing activities, as well as engage with your customers. Social can help with your talent acquisition.  It is a place of learning for your employees. It is part of  your employee voice.  If you want the benefits and the rewards that come with all things social, then you need to balance a little risk too.

I would suggest that if connections are so fundamental to your business, the matter either will already be, or should be, addressed within your contracts of employment and your restrictive covenant clauses in particular.  Contrary to popular belief, restrictive covenants are worth the paper on which they are written.  They just need to be well drafted and reasonable.  And of course enforcing them can be expensive.  But they can prevent your former employees from soliciting customers or current employees perfectly well, without resorting to an additional policy that can never be effectively enforced.

Trying to control social is like chasing the clouds.  Unintended consequences will likely follow.  Your employees are social, so they will do this stuff anyway, with or without your permission. Better that they do it with your encouragement and guidance and for mutual benefit, than under the radar (or more likely, under the desk).

I would suggest to those writing this sort of advice, that there is stuff that you can own, and stuff that you cannot. Knowing someone falls into the latter category. In the social world and the real life one.


*Note for younger readers.  This is a Rolodex.  You can still buy them.  But most of what you would use them for is already in your phone, in one App or another.