Imagine the following scenario: You encourage your employees to establish Twitter accounts to communicate new developments, sales and industry information to customers. One of your most productive salespersons resigns to join a competitor. Suddenly, you notice that he is tweeting information about his new employer to the same account. Can you claim that the employee's personal Twitter account is your property, and must be transferred to you when the employee departs?
This scenario was the subject of a recently settled case in California. In PhoneDog v. Kravitz, the former employer claimed that the Twitter account belonged to it, and demanded payment for each of the 23,000 followers it accumulated during the defendant's employment with the company. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but the former employee retained ownership of the account.
This case demonstrates the need for employers to adopt clear social media policies. Employees asked to establish professional accounts should sign an agreement acknowledging that they are company property, and agreeing to transfer them to the company along with any passwords upon separation from employment. The policy and agreement should caution employees against the use of such accounts for personal, non-work purposes, and make clear that employees are free to establish such personal accounts if they wish.
Social networking platforms and business use of such media constantly change. Employers need to remain nimble, analyzing the value and costs of such efforts, and making sure that employees have clear expectations with regard to their use and ownership of such media.