Social networks have taken the business world by storm. In a few short years, they’ve become powerful tools for finding customers and strengthening existing relationships. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google + and others have become indispensible for professional networking by employees and businesses alike. They also can be a source of legal trouble if you’re not careful.
Consider a social network account set up by an employee who is leaving the company. Is he expected to abandon the account, which may mingle professional and personal data? Or should he be ordered to stop accessing the professional network? If not, what are the implications for post-employment agreements that restrict communication with clients and colleagues? Now is the time to start thinking about these questions if you haven’t already. At least one company is discovering this the hard way – in court.
In Minnesota, the IT staffing firm TEKsystems Inc. is suing three former employees and their new employer for allegedly violating non-competition, non-solicitation and non-disclosure agreements. What did the employees do? They continued to use their LinkedIn accounts, which they had set up while working at TEKsystems, after they had left the company. The lawsuit alleges the employees used LinkedIn to communicate with TEKsystems clients and contractors in violation of their departure agreements.
The problem for TEKsystems is that courts tend to interpret workplace covenants very strictly, according to Renée Jackson, a Nixon Peabody attorney who recently wrote a report on the lawsuit. She warns that employee policies – whether codes of conduct, post-employment agreements or any type of restrictive covenant – must explicitly address social networks. TEKsystems’ policies did not. Its lawsuit has not been decided; it’s scheduled to go to trial in August 2011.
For most business owners, it’s not too late to head off problems. Make sure your organization’s policies make exact reference to social networks and how such sites may be used both during employment and afterward. This also is an opportunity to look at how social networking sites are currently being used within your organization.
At many companies, employees may have started using this technology before their supervisors knew it existed. At others, managers may encourage employees who haven’t joined to sign up. Each scenario offers an opportunity to clarify your organization’s policies and procedures – and stake a claim to ownership, especially if office equipment was used. This also is an opportunity to review all communications policies that affect current and former employees, customers and other business contacts. Don’t let your sensitive contacts slip through a legal loophole. Until the legal system sets ground rules, it may be your only opportunity to protect your business.
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