Who owns the contacts on Social Networks?

Social media is being used by more and more businesses to advertise their services and reach out to new clients, with many employers actively encouraging their employees to use the various platforms on their behalf.

Social media is being used by more and more businesses to advertise their services and reach out to new clients, with many employers actively encouraging their employees to use the various platforms on their behalf.

Many employees also use social networks, such as LinkedIn, to expand their own contacts and build relationships.

However, Amy Jones, employment lawyer at Thorntons Law Firm, has seen an increase in disputes over who owns these contacts, particularly when an individual moves on.

She said: "There are potential pitfalls that employers should think about and plan for if they are using social media to promote their business.

"For example, what happens if an employee, who runs the employer's LinkedIn group, leaves taking all the connections with them?

"A recent case indicates that the courts are likely to find that contacts in an employer's LinkedIn account belong to the employer.

"However, it's not clear what would happen to the personal LinkedIn account of an employee, where they share the same contacts as the employer.

"If all an employee's business contacts are also 'stored' on their personal LinkedIn profile there is the potential for serious damage to be caused to the employer by the leaving employee.

"Another risk that must be considered is employees befriending colleagues, business contacts or customers on social media and then posting comments or photos etc which could be discriminatory or damage the employer's reputation.

"There have been a number of high profile cases concerning this issue and it's clear that any dismissal in these circumstances will not necessarily be fair, unless the employer can demonstrate a loss as a result."

So what should businesses do to make best use of such platforms as well as protecting themselves either from loss of contacts or from potential claims against them?

Amy said: "The starting point is to fully understand how these platforms work, what they can do for your business and what their limitations are.

"Once you have done this the next step is to have a social media policy which addresses a range of issues including acceptable use of company IT resources including access to social media sites and use of company and third-party intellectual property assets and confidential and privileged information.

"Issues including discrimination, harassment or bullying of other employees or third parties, should also be considered as well as negative comments made about the company, employees, business contacts or competitors.

"Other elements to the policy should cover the use of information gained from social media during the recruitment process, if an employee is allowed to identify their employer on their own social media accounts, ownership of social media contacts gained during employment, requirement to update social media accounts on termination of employment and lastly, outline acceptable use of company social media accounts.

"As social media is constantly evolving, it is essential to regularly review the policy and revise when required."

It's not just employers that need to think about the potential implications of the use of social media.

Amy added: "Employees should make sure they are aware of their employer's polices, the terms of their contracts and how these may impact on them if they breach their employer's rules.

"Of equal importance is to ensure that the correct privacy settings are used as most employees who have found themselves being disciplined as a result of social media posts have not understood the reach of social media sites or how privacy settings operate.

"However, it is essential to remember that even private posts can become public.

"Finally, a clear separation between work and personal social media accounts should be maintained."

Amy Jones is a specialist Employment Solicitor. If you need Employment advice please contact Amy on 01382 229111 or email ajones@thorntons-law.co.uk or alternatively contact a member of the Employment Law team.

Categories: Employment, Intellectual Property

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