How would you feel if you had to delete all your LinkedIn connections when you left your job?
Given the importance of online networks nowadays, it is worth considering whether your employer could ask you to do this.
And while you might asking you to de-link yourself would be an unfair request, it could be legally justified.
But on what grounds? Am I suggesting that your employer owns your LinkedIn connections?
Who Owns Client Relationships?
Before thinking about how LinkedIn connections could be affected, let’s step back and consider how relationships you may make during your employment are treated generally.
A legitimate interest
It is well-settled law that your employer has a legitimate interest in the connections that you make as part of carrying out your duties as their employee.
By allowing you to work in their business, they give you the benefit of establishing relationships with people you might not otherwise have met.
And for the people you do meet, you are your employer. That is, you represent your employer to them. The clients may never meet the owners of the business, but they do meet you.
By relating directly with your employer’s clients, you may form something of a bond. Ultimately, those clients may have more loyalty to you than to your employer.
Hairdressers and baristas
Think about the relationship you have with your hairdresser, as an example.
If they moved to another employer or location, would you want to follow them?
Or what if your favourite barista moved to the coffee shop down the road?
Who employs your hairdresser or barista could be irrelevant to you, so long as they continue to cut your hair or make your coffee.
That’s exactly what employers may fear: that they employ you to work with their clients for their benefit, but you end up forming a stronger bond with those clients and take them for your own benefit when you leave.
Restraints of trade
The law sees that as a fair concern. It can in some cases justify a restraint of trade, where your employer prevents you from soliciting their clients or working for a competitor for a time after you end your employment.
So while an employer doesn’t “own” the client relationships as such, they have a strong interest in them. And that interest could mean that you are not allowed to contact those clients for a time after you leave your job if you have a restraint of trade clause in your employment agreement.
Who Owns The Client Information?
On the other hand, your employer will develop lists of their clients and suppliers as their business grows.
Those lists themselves are your employer’s property and are usually regarded as confidential information worthy of protection.
Under no circumstances are you permitted as an employee to take those lists away from your employer and use them for your own purposes.
How This Works Online
What happens when connections you make on behalf of your employer are captured on a social network like LinkedIn?
There do not appear to be any employment law cases decided in New Zealand on this point, but applying the general principles above, we might make a couple of general points.
Your employer doesn’t own your LinkedIn connections, but may have a genuine interest in them.
If you have made LinkedIn connections in the course of your employment, your employer could conceivably restrain you from contacting those people via LinkedIn with an appropriate restraint of trade in your employment agreement.
But then we are left with new questions about what may amount to soliciting people online: for example, would a status update to all of your connections amount to soliciting them?
Your LinkedIn connections may reflect your employer’s confidential information.
Who you are connected to on LinkedIn is potentially available to the public, in which case you would not expect it to be treated as confidential.
But it may matter how those connections have been created.
In one UK case, an employee uploaded their employer’s contact list to LinkedIn to get the necessary details to make new connections with those contacts. The court considered that, while the connections may not be confidential by virtue of being on LinkedIn, the employee had arguably breached their obligations not to misuse that confidential list.
Can You Be Required To Delete Your LinkedIn Connections?
If your employer thinks you might use your LinkedIn connections to take business elsewhere, they may want you to end those online connections when you leave your job.
Given that we know employers have a genuine interest in relationships you develop with clients, it seems possible that this would be a fair request. But to be enforceable it would probably need to be:
- a requirement set out in writing in your employment agreement, similar to a restraint of trade; and
- limited to terminating only those connections that you developed through your employment with that employer. Other connections would be of no relevance to your employer.
Your employer might also expressly require you to update your employment history to show that you are no longer employed by them.
As we increasingly form relationships, even business relationships, online and cement them there, the way in which those online social networks can be used against your employer has to be considered.
We are yet to see any developed case law around this issue. In particular, we haven’t seen any clauses of a nature requiring deletion of LinkedIn connections considered by the Employment Relations Authority or the Employment Court.
But do not assume that in future an employer will not seek to enforce greater protections around what you do online. It may only be a matter of time before this becomes a priority for employers.