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

April 6, 2009
By Lisa Barone in 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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