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Who Owns your Twitter Followers?

Can you take your Twitter Followers with you When you Leave a Job?

Do you have a Twitter account? Do you discuss your employer online? Do you count your company's customers among your followers? What if you work in media and every person on the planet could be considered a potential customer? 

Who gets to keep your Twitter followers if you leave your job? Do you have that right or your employer? That question came to light last month when Jim Roberts, the assistant managing editor of the New York Times, became a victim of cutbacks at the New York Times. When he goes, the Times will not just lose his 26 years of experience but also many of the 75,000 people who follow Roberts on Twitter.  

News of the departure came by Twitter. In response to a question from paidContent about the fate of his followers, Roberts tweeted this:

In an earlier tweet, Roberts said he would have to “find a new handle,” presumably one without “nyt” in it (Twitter lets users change their handle but keep the followers). Roberts did not respond to a follow-up question about whether his contract with the New York Times gives him a legal right to the followers.

For the New York Times, which is trimming its newsroom by 30 people by the end of January, the collective loss of Twitter followers could be significant — especially when those leaving are digital trailblazers like Roberts.

Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for the NYT, said there is no specific policy in place that covers this kind of situation but, practically, when Jim leaves The Times officially he will likely change his account name and bio but the followers are his and will choose to continue to follow him (which I suspect), or not.

My best advice is employers is to get an agreement in writing with any employees who use social media under the company’s name. It should clarify who owns those accounts and what will happen to the followers if an employee departs.

This was the issue in a high-profile settlement reached in December 2012 between PhoneDog media and an ex-employee, Noah Kravitz, who left the company, took his 17,000 Twitter followers and began tweeting to them for his own business. Kravitz kept custody of the followers in the settlement, but the issue could have been avoided with a written agreement.

Here are some tips for employees and employers. For employees, take these steps to make sure you get to keep your own Twitter followers (or LinkedIn connections) should you part ways with an employer:

Get it in writing. When you start a job, insist on a written document spelling out that your Twitter handle belongs to you and you alone. If your boss asks you to start an account to publicize the company, also get in writing who owns it, what the expectations are and what happens to the account should you quit.

Don't turn over passwords. If the account is yours, your boss shouldn't be able to log on as you. Like all other passwords, keep this one private.

Don't share your account. If you and your coworkers are all tweeting on your account, it's going to look a lot more like a business account than a personal one.

For employers, clarify your Twitter policy.

Maintain the password yourself. Your employee will need to be able to access the company account to tweet things, but you should maintain the password, and the email associated with the account should be a company email address. You need to maintain the ability to monitor and edit the account, including deleting posts, if necessary. Change the password as soon as the employee quits or transfers to a different job.

Make social media a specified part of the job description. It's not an extra -- it should be written down and the account should stay with the job, not the person. So when Sally transfers from sales to marketing, the new salesperson takes over the account and Sally gets a marketing one (if necessary). 

Keep the personal off the account. Your employees shouldn't be tweeting about their date last night, their lunch or anything other than things designed to help the business. What should and should not be done should be clearly written in policy.

Employees must not ignore this issue until they want to quit and take followers with them. Employers should not wait until their star employee quits and wants to take those followers.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 6, 2012