Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, In Life & Social Media

by on 04/06/2009 • 38 Comments | Social Media

As companies dive deeper into social media, as Community Manager job descriptions are being created and employees are becoming “spokespeople” for the company they work for, we’re being forced to ask a hard, somewhat controversial question: Who owns an employee’s social media connections?

When you hire someone to tweet for your company, to evangelize your brand on Facebook or to push your content on social media, what happens when that person leaves? Who “owns” those followers and the social media profiles? You or them? Are we reaching an age where employers need to create a social media noncompete?

As much as we want it to be black and white, it’s not. And while I think it’s a really interesting discussion that needs to be had, I’m almost hesitant to bring it up. Because I know it invites a huge amount of criticism for my own accounts, as has often been pointed out to me. In public. But in the spirit of conversation, let’s go there anyway. I can handle the heat. ;)

The rules for “who owns the followers”, for me, go like this:

  • If the employee created and built the account on company time, the employer owns them.
  • If the employee created the account on their own time, the employee owns them.
  • If the employer (whether realizing it or not) allowed the employee to use an existing personal account for work purposes, then the employee owns them.

Unfortunately for a lot of companies and their employees, this spokesperson/social media thing kind of crept up on everyone. They didn’t know this was something they had to consider. So employees watched their hard-earned social media accounts be stripped away from them when they changed jobs and employers watched employees build strong social media profiles on their time and then walk off into the sunset with them. Both situations did nothing but breed resentment, anger and a lot of wishing that one party could kick the other in the shin.

And let’s be honest, I get called out on it a lot. People asking me if I feel “guilty” about building my social media accounts on past employers dimes and then taking them with me when I left. To be honest, no, I don’t feel guilty. I built those profiles working my butt off to strengthen the brand and blogs of the companies I worked for. They benefited from it and I benefited from it, and because I did that in my name, I continue to benefit from it. But I’ve also worked for companies that supported the growth of their employees and companies that hired me solely because of my follower count. In hindsight would those employers have preferred if we created our social media accounts as CompanyEmployeeName? I don’t know. You’d have to ask them. My gut says no, but again, I’ve always worked for bosses who were extremely supportive of their employees.

As a general rule, unless you’ve hired someone for their connections, I think employees should be creating new work accounts when they start entering the social space in your name. They make take a bit longer to build up, but I think it protects everyone, especially the employer.

That said, I do think it’s something that needs to be addressed on a company level, because everyone will have different comfort zones. You need to create rules for how you’re going to engage in social media so there are no surprises or scrambles should an employee end up leaving. Are you going to make employees tweet for you under a company branded account or use their own account? If you’re going to have them use their account because it’s stronger and already established, then I think you need to accept the fact that those followers are the property of the employee, even though they’re talking about your company. If you’re going to make them use a branded account, realize that it may take longer to grow, but should that employee ever leave, you get to keep those followers and the profile.

What’s your policy for employees and their social media accounts? Is it black and white or are there sticky situations employers and employees need to watch out for?

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

38 thoughts on “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, In Life & Social Media

  1. The employer might own the account, but they don’t own the “personality” of the account so ultimately, the employer retention of account ownership might be of little value if the replacement isn’t up to snuff.

  2. Todd: Very true. But at least if you’re the employer you get the option to hold on to that account and those followers instead of unwillingly giving them away. But totally agreed, if you hire a robot to take over someone who was known for their life and charisma, good look holding their attention. That’s a whole ‘nother issue. :)

  3. Two words come to mind – Intellectual Property. At some point the level of effectiveness in the employee/contractors ability to achieve a social following needs to be monetized. Just as a staff writer of a hit show has specific rights to their episode script. That way when it comes time to pass it along (ie; syndicate) the creator can be correctly compensated or the rights appropriately transferred. Similar to what we saw in 2007 with the writers strike – and the change over to having online medium factored into contracts – We’ll need social media factored in to compensation and employee agreements.

  4. Marc: Compensated how? Monetarily? I don’t think that’s going to work in terms of negotiating social accounts. If I’m a marketer leaving one company for another, I don’t want to trade my 1,700 followers for a severance package. I want to be able to take my followers because they’re going to be worth far more to me than some add-on bonus when I leave jobs. They’re loyal to me and they already trust me. That’s valuable. Compensation may work from an employer standpoint, but as an employee, that wouldn’t work for me. I don’t want money, I want to hold on to my relationships. Which is why these things need to be figured out beforehand. So you don’t put yourself in this position.

  5. Another great article! Given the number of opinions coming out on both sides of the debate it’s going to become more and more important to make ownership on any given social media account clear at the outset of the relationship and preferably before the account is created (if possible). Articles, blog posts, etc are less problematic as they can remain with the employer but a social media account that’s focused a great deal on the individual personality of the writer would make less sense for the employer to retain.

  6. Rob Woods:

    …but a social media account that’s focused a great deal on the individual personality of the writer would make less sense for the employer to retain.

    You think? Do you think if Frank from ComcastCares left, Comcast wouldn’t want to hold on to that account? Sure, it’s a corporate account based on Frank’s personality, but there are 14,750 people following it. I’m sure Comcast would try (and succeed) at holding on to that profile and throwing up another friendly face to answer questions and be of service. Those 14,700+ followers are extremely powerful.

  7. Lisa:

    That’s a good point. I think it still depends on how much personality is associated with the account. If you left Outspoken, for instance, I don’t think they could take the LisaBarone account and simply put someone else in place as replacement. They might (hypothetically) own the account and be able to transition users to a new account with a different voice but anyone interacting with the account would know it’s no longer you. They may retain the followers but they would certainly lose a portion of the value of the account and would have to make a concerted effort to rebuild the relationship with the audience.

  8. now of course really clever employees inject as much personality as they can into a corporate account, so that if they leave, are fired, or re-assigned nobody else can take over the account without the public noticing.

    I remember somewhere deep in the dark past when the GoogleGuy account was manned by someone other than MC and it was painfully obvious, in fact

    http://www.threadwatch.org/node/2002#comment-9935

  9. Lisa – I agree it has to be hashed out beforehand – you’re a perfect example – if Outspoken was dissolved you’d probably have no trouble keeping LisaBerone account on twitter, but certainly you’d need to discuss the dissolution of the outspokenmedia account with your partners etc. In Comcast and Frank’s case – its safe to say Frank most likely would not have as many followers with out his connect/inside access to comcast that made him popular to begin with, his personality propelling it further of course, which brings me to my point- if Frank leaves Comcast – isn’t it better he be compensated for the followers than inevitably lose the account? Doesn’t a writer of a hit show, who is let go – left to find a new following elsewhere?

  10. Rob, Marc: The LisaBarone account will have to be pried out of my cold, dead hands. I don’t care who I work for, that account is mine. My name, my voice, my soap opera life. That said, if Bruce Clay had tried to take that account from me because it was at least partially built from that job…who knows what would have happened. Luckily Bruce is the king of supportive bosses.

    Graywolf: Wow. Way to take personal branding in a completely vindictive direction. Well done.

    Streko: Every time Graywolf pines for Threadwatch, another 7 Ways To Get More Twitter Followers By Kissing Ass article goes hot on Sphinn.

  11. Great article Lisa. Being a company owner it has concerned me a little about the ownership of such profiles but I am forced to recognize that social media profiles are as personal as fingerprints; something that doesn’t exactly make commercial sense to “own”. That said, a company account like @stepforth is a no-brainer for company ownership. So if an owner is worried about losing out on all of the work a social profile has taken to create then branding it makes a lot of sense. That, of course, is the safe path which isn’t nearly as credible or powerful as a well-run personal account where an individual can really shine.

    On a side note, I always did wonder how the heck you got paid to be on Twitter so much ;-) As an owner/boss it made me cringe a bit imagining one of my employees doing the same – especially since it can be difficult to track the benefits in terms of the bottom line. It must have been difficult at times to argue the benefits? I would love to hear more about that aspect from you.

  12. @lisabarone – cmon i gotta keep things interesting :-)

    srsly, it’s a point businesses need be on the lookout for. Anytime you have a single person corporate account it’s a danger, that’s why I always recommend having multiple ppl man an account, so one person feels they “own it”.

  13. Ross: Haha, you wanna fight? ;)

    I don’t think I spend nearly as much time on Twitter as people suspect that I do (no, really!). I keep a Twitter Search up all day to track terms that are important to me [lisabarone, outspokenmedia, various keywords, etc]. That means as soon as sometime tweets at me or mentions Outspoken Media, I’m alerted immediately. In then takes all of two seconds to go up to Twitter and answer or make some sort of sarcastic remark. :) The trick to using Twitter is to surround yourself with tools that allow it to seamlessly fit into your day.

    That said, branding has always been a huge part of my job regardless of what company I was working for. So building my own personal brand, while building theirs, was actually *part* of my job. Heck, when I was at We Build Pages, it was Jim Boykin’s (genius) idea to start the Twitter Roundup posts at the end of the week. I think smart bosses realize the benefits of building a strong brand bring to the entire company, so I never really had too much of a hard time justifying the time spent.

    But thanks for implying I don’t actually work. (Kidding!) :p

  14. Nice job Lisa. Something that I think needs to covered though is the size of the organization, because that matters.

    When it comes down to it, if someone like myself leaves Yahoo!, you better believe that I am not giving them my @tonyadam twitter account because that is my brand.

    That said, in a more general sense, if I had a digg account that I used to promote content and they knew about it, when I joined, you could structure an agreement with the employer that those accounts would be solely yours or belong to the employer (which ever situation works). But, that definitely needs to be agreed upon and understood from the get go.

    Also, a lot of the time companies do hire people that have lots of exposure, because of just that, the exposure. It’s like saying a company wouldn’t want to send an employee to conferences to speak because it is helping their “personal branding” more than the company, when in reality, they company they are with will get residual exposure.

    Whew! Sorry for the length, but hope that makes sense. :)

  15. Courageous of you to put this out there, Lisa, but like many things web this is old hat for regular business. Your question raises (yet again) how employment is changing in the web-connected world.

    Used to be very few employees were contract employees. Most are hired on as at-will employees (no contract), where the employer “owns” everything via company policies. These days the “special extras” (like online celebrity) are accessible to everyone… ditto for side work on the web (anyone can have a side business).

    As Todd Mintz has highlighted many times, employers need to catch up and offer what workers want (telecommuting, some IP ownership). And that probably means coming to terms with the details of things like online celebrity/social media profiles. As Tony notes Yahoo already negotiates terms with employees, when necessary, as does Google and others.

    What does your employment contract say about your social media activities? If you feel you should own them, you should get an agreement in writing. If you can’t, you can leave and take them with you, but if you stay, you become bound by company policies whether you agree or not (in most states) and then when you finally leave you may have problems.

  16. I’m involved with several accounts but only use my personal account to build my brand & connect with peeps I want to know personally. The company accounts are strictly branded to the company and while several employees interact on the accounts, employee names aren’t attached to these accounts & only a few really know who is at the other end…kind of like Outspokenmedia on Twitter. I don’t know if that’s a mistake or not but at least this way if any employee who directly involved in the company’s social media leaves the company the followers won’t know any different.

  17. This is certainly something that needs to be agreed upon long before it matters. I’d encourage anyone engaging in Social Media on behalf of their employers to think twice before using their real name alone on any social profile an employer would retain once your relationship ends.

    Imagine if Lisa had agreed when she started working at Bruce Clay that any profiles she had built while employed would either remain with the company or be closed should they part ways – for whatever reason. Had Bruce believed he could stake some claim to Lisa’s social profiles because they were created and used on his time, I’m guessing Lisa would have had a problem with that idea.

    If the accounts were “BruceClay_Lisa” instead of “LisaBarone” or “OtheLisa”, perhaps it’s not a big deal. But marrying your full name to a company throughout the world of Social Media could end up being bad in the long run for both parties. It would be smart to approach the “what happens when…” agreements from a long term, big picture and worst case scenario point of view just to make sure everyone’s interests are adequately protected.

  18. This was a great article at a perfect time. While I’ve been active on social media for quite a while now, my company is just starting to get involved. Up until recently, they allowed me to do everything under my personal accounts; however, they have now decided to give me a corporate blog because of the attention my personal blog is getting. They still don’t allow me to access the corporate Twitter account but that’s okay with me. I’ll keep building my personal account (just not on their time).

    As you mentioned, there are great Twitter tools out there. One of my bosses asked if I sleep at night. I explained that I use TweetLater to schedule my tweets so I don’t annoy people by tweeting 12 subjects at once.

  19. Ross: Expect that post to be hitting Outspoken Media very soon. It’s been something I’ve wanted to write for awhile and now have a good reason to. :)

  20. Great article, but not just true of social media, potentially true of all online marketing. Right now, if I walked from my current day job or was fired or reassigned and/or whatever…I take all the channels I manage with me. How/Why? Because there isn’t anyone here to take over. Certainly not in the short term. I leave with nearly ten years of experience managing CPC, Affiliate, SEO, CSE and other programs. I leave with insider knowledge of how those programs work and personal relationships with the people who provide the tools that allow me to run those programs. Do I own these programs? Nope – the company owns them as they were built on their dime. But I own the brains behind those programs and that goes with me.

  21. I personally prefer to follow people rather than companies as individuals are seemingly less promotional than a company might be. Even if this isn’t really the case, it is perceived this way. As consumers we are hit with advertising everywhere we look, so I think most people prefer to spend their social media time talking to individuals.

    Having said that, if you create a social media profile using your own name it’s your intellectual property even if it’s on company time. How can an employer tell you that you’re not allowed to use your own name anymore? That is absurd! If for some reason this was allowed, that would mean the company would be able to keep your name and profile and post things that aren’t really from you. That’s just too bizarre and kind of creepy.

  22. An analogy to this would be sales contacts – when a salesperson leaves a job, they naturally take their relationships with them. You can’t unknow people. However, whether or not they take that actual, physical contact information with them is often a contractual arrangement. Some companies expressly forbid it, or require a time period during which you can’t contact those former customers. It’s my understanding that many of those post-employment terms don’t hold much water, but you see companies trying to protect that information more and more.

    It seems like we always get into these debates over what’s new/hot, but in a way, this is really like anything you create while employed. Most of the time, that creation is the company’s property, but that doesn’t mean you can’t derive benefit from it, use it in a portfolio, etc. (unless you contractually agree not to). Every time we leave a job, we take experience, training, relationships etc. with us to our next job – it’s a natural part of the process.

  23. I feel very similar to these situations. I am the SEO/Social media guru, but in many ways I am using myself as the brand. It is wild to think about though

  24. Lisa,

    Great post.
    The once divide between employee time and personal time has infused together.
    Especially in this economy, building “people equity” is key.

    As social media continues to revolve and innovate, this posting will truly help human resource and compliance prepare for future matters.

    keep writing

    Rayfil Wong
    President Campusfork Inc.

  25. I have to give you props for linking to my comment that I thought you would delete.

    I think most companies would be better off with shared social media accounts that multiple employees use. You could have strict style guidelines to make it seem like its one person behind the account (everything from how to make a smileyface :) to whether to use woot or huzzah).

    I see no value in building my employee’s personal brand on my dime. And that’s not just with social media profiles/connections… it includes sending them to conferences where they make personal contacts and then submit an expense report for travel, dinner, drinks, etc.

    Great ROI on that… NOT.

  26. I completely agree with you. If an employee is creating the account as instructed to do so by the employer whilst “clocked in” then it would be the property of the employer/company.

    However, if the employee created the account in his/her own time as a proposal/strategy to his/her employer, and later leaves the company, he/she should remain in control of the account/followers.

    It’s common sense really, but we all know the law works in hideous ways. :P

  27. Steph: If you create a social media account on your employers time and then build that up for the purpose of your job, then I think they can totally try and seize control of it when you leave. Is it a totally asshat thing to do? Maybe, but I’d argue it’s inbounds asshat. ;) I think that’s why people need to be careful and why conversations need to start BEFORE these accounts are created and built up.

    Dr Pete: That’s actually a really good point. I think there’s a slight difference in that most people will understand that the business contacts you have at one job really don’t transfer to another. However, that social media account i created while on the job, that’s mine. I built that up. It uses my name and even has my photo So I’m just gonna go ahead and take that, okay? What do you mean, NO? :) Because these accounts often feel “personal”, we assume their ours. But, they’re really, really not.

    Dorian: I promise to never delete a comment critical of me. And yes, I may even link to it in another post. ;)

    I agree with you on the social media accounts, I don’t agree that helping your employees to build up their own brand is always detrimental to the company. Obviously, it comes with risks, but there are also benefits to consider. But…that’s a different conversation for a different post. :)

  28. I would never use my personal brand to advertise a company, although I might introduce one to the other to build followers the way you did with @kneesockz. I think that’s the way to go. Interlace personal with professional – and build both – so you can walk away without leaving your followers behind and without legal entanglement. Of course, we both know that your followers are going where you go, but from the blogger standpoint, let’s hope companies don’t catch on to that anytime soon.

    From the company standpoint, if you have a successful blogger with a loyal following in the thousands…do whatever it takes to keep him/her happy. Somebody get Lisa a cupcake with sprinkles. NOW!

  29. I think it is interesting that throughout the comments and post people used words like “company time”,”clocking-in” and “your own time.” I assume that if you are employed, most of you work salary not hourly, therefore how do you deal with employers who think that all of your time should be their time?

  30. Lots of good debate here. English Law is made up as it goes along, according to this sort of good debate, but in Court. Gradually it builds up precedents through cases, and there is one case so far on exactly this question.

    Hays Specialist Recruitment (Holdings) Ltd. v. Ions, (2008)

    Mark Ions was employed by Hays and left to start a recruitment firm in competition. Hays were concerned that he had taken business contact information in violation of his employment contract prohibiting him from making use of confidential information and from doing business with clients he had at Hays. Hays was concerned primarily with his LinkedIn account.

    It’s a fascinating debate, but to cut a long story short, if you get into a similar pickle, use this barrister, you won’t lose….

    http://www.blackstonechambers.com/people/barristers/victoria_windle.html

  31. It hurts. No matter how hard we try to forget it, it just couldn’t move away. It’s really important stay strong. It will go somehow. Let time do its job.

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