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Earlier this year, an ad salesperson for a tech magazine left his job. He sent out an email to his contacts which I received noting that he was leaving effective at the end of the month. The following week I received another email from him — this time from his new job at another magazine. All of his emails were always sales oriented — and the new one was no different.
His series of emails got me thinking…who owns the contacts that a person gathers when they work for a company? Let’s assume that you begin employment at a company today as a salesperson. You are provided a laptop and a cell phone. You work at the company for 2 years and during that time you collect 750 business cards. In addition, through networking at company events and conferences paid for by the company, you gather an additional 1,250 contacts. At the time you leave the firm, you have 2,000 total contacts. When you leave the company, the laptop and cell phone must be returned. But what about the contacts?
Do you have the right to take the contacts with you to your next employer? Are the contacts you gathered the same type of “property” as the cell phone and laptop?
How many salespeople are hired simply because of their book of contacts from their previous employment history? It’s a practice that appears to have been going on for ages. But with the increased value of contacts as we move into a more digital and social space, should contacts be the property of the company you work for? Or is it ok that an employee can take their address book and business cards with them when they leave? Does the nature of the separation play a role in your answer to the previous question?
If your answer is that the employee should be able to take his or her contacts when they leave, should the company also have access to those contacts? I’ve never seen a company scrape a former employee’s contact list or ask for their business cards before they exit the building.
We can also extend this conversation to network services including LinkedIn and Facebook.
Many of you know that I run a startup that deals with contacts so I find this topic particularly interesting. I am very interested in your feedback – please leave your thoughts in the comments.