We’ve all heard stories about an employee with all the social media logins and passwords getting laid off and proceeding to go nuclear with the corporate accounts. Less talked about — yet still important — is the question of who owns the social media followers on an employee’s individual account. If they built those followers as part of an employee advocacy initiative or social selling on behalf of the company, is the employer entitled to those followers when the employee leaves?
Social media presents incredible opportunities to reach new prospects and customers. It can also become a giant thorn in your side if you haven’t taken the time to define your social media policy. Here’s how to ensure that marketing and HR work together to protect both the business and your staff.
Corporate social media and employee separation: An insider’s story
In 2011, I was laid off from my job when my employer sold his company. Everyone on the sales and marketing team was let go. The acquiring company didn’t have any social media presence to speak of, but I had built a nice little following for my employer. I had a choice: unleash my wrath on social media over the layoff (with no severance) after 10 years of loyalty, or take the high road. I chose the high road.
I fully appreciate the pain that someone feels after losing their job. I felt that devilish flicker that wanted to “show those guys.” But, it’s just not worth it. Sabotaging a former employer’s social media profiles is just self-sabotage in the end. Ranting about them on your personal social media profiles isn’t an excellent idea, either. Instead, I swallowed my pain and contacted the HR department. I gave them the Twitter login credentials, added someone in HR as the Facebook admin and removed myself, removed myself from the LinkedIn Company Page after adding an HR person as admin, handed over the Hootsuite and HubSpot passwords, and ended my employment with integrity.
But what if I hadn’t taken this approach? What should this company have done —or what could it do in the future to prevent a social media manager from taking the nuclear option? Here are a few simple governance steps to protect your company’s social media profiles:
Clarify in writing who owns the accounts. This one sounds pretty obvious, but not every business puts it in writing. In my case, I could have changed the name on the Twitter account and taken it with me. While I never considered doing that, who’s to say someone else in that situation wouldn’t do it? While ownership may seem like a no-brainer, why even leave room for questions or doubt? Companies need to clarify ownership of corporate accounts in writing and require acknowledgment by anyone who manages those corporate profiles.
Develop an employee separation procedure for social media accounts. HR and marketing departments need to work together to develop a method for protecting the accounts during employee separation. Ideally, my former employer should have ensured that the social media accounts were handled just like email — the company should revoke an employee’s access upon termination or departure.
A simple solution is to designate an HR representative and a marketing manager or executive-level team member as the only ones with the logins to directly access accounts. All other employees who need to manage corporate profiles should do so via a solution such as Sprout Social, Hootsuite (disclosure: I’m a Hootsuite Ambassador, volunteer position), or a marketing automation platform. Users’ permissions can be easily managed from a central platform this way. For those accounts that require users to log in directly, create a procedure for password changes at the time of employee dismissal or departure.
Consider adding corporate social media information to nondisclosure, confidentiality and nonsolicitation agreements. As pointed out on the Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt blog, customer lists associated with your corporate social media accounts may be considered trade secrets. If you want to protect that information, you may need to take formal steps.
Who owns the followers?
Ownership of personal profile connections is an issue that will become even more important as participation in social selling and employee advocacy grows. If your company encourages employees to use their individual profiles to share company updates and build awareness, who owns the followers gained during their employment? If a business pays for premium LinkedIn accounts for sales representatives, do they have a claim to those accounts or customer/prospect lists gained by a sales representative during his or her tenure?
You may remember the case of PhoneDog vs. Kravitz where Noah Kravitz, former editor and social media specialist for PhoneDog, left the company and took his Twitter account of 17,000 followers with him. He changed the Twitter handle from @PhoneDog_Noah to @NoahKravitz after leaving. PhoneDog went after Kravitz for $340,000 (they assessed the value of a follower as $2.50). Eventually, the parties settled. Kravitz kept his followers. Because the parties decided to settle, we still have no clear-cut precedent when it comes to the question of who owns an employee’s followers if that employee is social selling or advocating on behalf of the company.
What do the social media platforms say?
LinkedIn. “Section 2.2. Your Membership” in the LinkedIn User Agreement (as of June 6, 2016) states, “As between you and others, your account belongs to you.” Also, you agree to “not transfer any part of your account (e.g., connections, groups).”
LinkedIn addresses ownership of accounts and data associated with premium services paid for by employers here: “The party paying for the Premium Service controls such an account (which is different from your personal account) and may terminate your access to it.” The contacts connected to you personally are still yours. With that said, your employer could restrain your use of contacts for a given period via a noncompete or nonsolicitation agreement.
Twitter. Twitter has no clear statement of who owns the account or whether or not you can transfer followers.
Facebook. Facebook’s Terms states, “You will not transfer your account (including any Page or application you administer) to anyone without first getting our written permission.” This statement doesn’t necessarily protect the individual user from having to relinquish his or her personal connections if challenged by an employer, but the Facebook’s Principles documentation does state, “People should own their information. . . . People should have the freedom to decide with whom they will share their information, and to set privacy controls to protect those choices.”
Except for LinkedIn, there isn’t a lot of definitive information in each platform’s user agreements.
The best advice to companies that want to start an employee advocacy initiative or encourage social selling is this: clarify, clarify, clarify.
- Put your guidelines in writing.
- Get employees to acknowledge the guidelines and sign off before participating.
- Consider adding certain aspects of “social media information” to nonsolicitation and nondisclosure agreements.
- Have employees set up individual, company-related profiles if they want to participate in employee advocacy or social selling. Clearly define the company’s ownership of these followers. (I’m not a lawyer, so talk to your corporate attorney about this first.)
Followers and connections of individual profiles belong to the person who cultivated the relationships. If I had to guess, followers of the original @PhoneDog_Noah handle were more likely interested in the personality of Noah than his association with PhoneDog. I’m not a lawyer, so there may be very legitimate reasons why an employer feels a sense of ownership over an employee’s profile —the use of the company name in the handle; networks built using business equipment, time, and internet access; claims of customer lists as trade secrets, etc.
Organizations that want to encourage employee social media participation should take this ownership issue into consideration. As mentioned above, one possible workaround is to have business-specific employee profiles that are understood to belong to the employer. However, with this approach, you probably won’t gain the authentic engagement and word of mouth that you would if you just let your employees use their existing individual profiles.
Social media and employee participation: Is it worth it?
The issues above make social media seem like a big can of worms. It’s enough to leave some businesses asking, “Is it worth it?” The answer is YES — if your organization takes the time to put together a meaningful, concise and easy-to-understand policy.
Protect your corporate accounts from rogue former employees who hold the keys to the communication kingdom. Also, be fair to employees who have taken the time to build their personal brands via social media. Respect their efforts, and keep the company’s hands off their hard-earned followers.
Social media is all about communication. It just makes sense that there should be adequate communication around expectations and guidelines for its use, too.