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Who Owns Your Relationships?

We all have a range of acquaintances, colleagues, family and friends – loosely defined as our ‘networks’. But who ‘owns’ ‘the relationships we have with these people, especially if they are developed through employment?

It used to be fairly simple. If someone was a customer of your employer then the employee had no right to approach that customer in another capacity eg to set up their own business or when working for someone else. That pretty much still holds in most employment agreements but it’s now become seemingly complicated by the management of our networks via social media. Why? Mainly because of the ease of obtaining information and connection. When customers send an invitation to connect on LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook or elsewhere, it’s pretty rude not to connect. But now those people are very much in the employee’s network – they read their posts, logs, articles and advice. They may develop relationships beyond the original customer-organization. Maybe in time the employee leaves to work elsewhere – are these relationships still owned by the former employer? Some organizations have tried to grapple with that.

There has been media publicity about organizations that require employees to pass over their social media passwords to the employer so they can monitor the employee’s activity. I’m very sure that would discourage me from doing much at all with social media, and those orgaizations are likely to not only lose good people, but lose the opportunities that social media offers when employees develop strong relationships with customers and potential customers on-line. More forward thinking organizations are encouraging employees to post, blog and share their expertise – within a few common-sense guidelines – in order to tap into a much larger pool of potential customers than the owner might have themselves. In pre-social media days, when employees left a company, some customers left too. I’m not sure the fact that they are connected on-line makes any real difference. Companies just need to get smart about ensuring their employee’s contacts sign up in some way when they show an interest in the organization’s products and services, so the company itself doesn’t lose contact when an employee leaves.

Further to this topic, I recently read an article suggesting that none of us technically own our social media contacts – everything on our profiles is owned by the site owner ie facebook, linkedin and so on. Interesting complication. Of course, these sites can hardly claim to own the actual relationship, but as they may own the data, might pay to download your contact lists now and again!

All this highlights the fact that social media has changed the way we do business. Control is eroding from organizations, and moving to individuals. Customers deal with individuals within an organization, and while that has always been the case, they now have ability to connect directly with them through a variety of on-line sites. Rather than try to prevent this, smart companies are figuring out ways to elevate their employees as experts on-line and establish wider customer reach so that everyone benefits.

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