Or Facebook friends? Or Twitter tweeps? If an employee is using these social-media sites in his or her professional capacity, does the employer have the right to take the contacts away once the employee leaves?
The correct answer is: shut up.
Seriously. If you're an employer or a manager and you're seriously asking these questions, you just don't get it when it comes to social media. You're missing the whole point of these social-networking sites.
Now pause for a minute before you go ballistic on me in the comments below. Remember: I'm a management lawyer. I'm on your side.
But the whole point of having your employees on these sites is to broaden the reach of the company's brand. Making connections with other people — customers, prospects, vendors, referral sources — by combining the employees' personalities with your company's brand identity is what it's all about.
And there's a trade-off here. Your company's brand reputation (ideally) helps your employees raise their own personal stature online. But if they leave your company, voluntarily or not, they have that stature to take with them. And there's nothing you can do about it. That's the implicit bargain you make with your employees when you use them as ambassadors for your brand.
That's why it drives me batspit crazy when I see other employment lawyers sounding alarms of doom and drafting small-minded policies about retaining social-media contacts for the company after the employee's departure. See, for example, "Who owns the salesperson's LinkedIn accounts?" Or a similar article here. There's even a discussion on this at LinkedIn itself.
Seriously, cut it out. If employees put themselves out there in cyberspace, even on the company's behalf, they can take their online connections with them when they leave. If you can't abide that, then maybe you do need a policy barring social media. Just don't come to me for that, because you're not my kind of employer.
On the other hand, if you're the kind of enlightened employer who sees the real value in having your employees connect with people who might lead to more business, and you understand that there's always a risk that those contacts will leave with your departing employees, then definitely give me a call. We're kindred spirits, and I can help you.
One more thing: Much of my legal work involves noncompetes and trade secrets. And one of my favorite tools for investigating whether a departed employee is violating agreements or stealing trade secrets is searching through social-media sites. Just because I sound all "Kumbaya" about social media doesn't mean that I won't use it like a hammer to win a lawsuit. (Just sayin'.)
What do you think? Does your company have LinkedIn policies about whose contacts are whose? Do you think you need them? Sound off in the comments.