Leaving Your Job? How to Decide Who Owns Your Business Contacts

Jan 16, 2015 - Joe Matar
When you’re preparing for the last time you’ll leave your job, you find yourself in a bit of a quandary: Who owns the contact lists you’ve developed during your employment? The vendors you’ve talked with day in and day out, the thought leaders you’ve befriended on social media…

Are they your business contacts or do they belong to the company?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear legally. Prior rulings around the United States suggest the three most important variables in determining ownership are:
  1. Whether the device holding the contacts belongs to you or the company
  2. What was stipulated regarding contact information in your initial contract
  3. Whether the contacts were given to you (like sales leads) or generated by you (like strategic alignments with thought-leaders)
If the device belongs to the company, your contract has specific language about data-custody, and if the contacts you’re interested in are sales leads, it’s safe to infer the data doesn’t belong to you. But if all you have is a non-compete clause and the contacts in question either came from your previous life or were generated through your own legwork, the answers are less clear. Businesses are generally protected by non-compete clauses and trade-secret sharing provisions, but since contact information doesn’t fall under the domain of trade secrets — per the Faccenda Chicken Ltd v. Fowler ruling of 1987 — what recourse does a business have if you don’t break contract? The real problem with this question — who owns business contacts — is that a failure of analysis is taking place, a failure to identify the way both the corporate and social landscapes of communication have changed with technological innovation.

Why social media matters in who owns business contacts

The question of who owns contacts transforms from a legal one to a philosophical one, answered only by attempting to understand how technology and social media have changed the nature of connectedness. It’s argued that social media is a new extension of public space, that Facebook and Twitter — and, to some extent, data about user behaviors all over the web — are a public facing, virtual town square where people interact, are recognized and are identifiable by others as themselves. We may not be able to see everything about someone we don’t know, but names, faces, basic modes of contact information… it’s like the phone book, except active. When we begin to consider digital information this way, business contacts take on a new life. They no longer live on corporate databases, residing instead in identifiable public spaces like LinkedIn, and in address books and emails, which are proprietary only in the sense that they’re records of communications you’ve engaged in, either through initiating conversation or responding to it. In that sense, you do personally own your business contacts. They’re nothing more than records that you’ve interacted with someone and allow for interaction with them again. But because they’re digital histories of interactions occurring in a space owned by a business, they can also be considered property of the business. After all, it was company bandwidth, possibly a company machine, and occurring on company time. The answer to the question is that both you and your company own the contact information.

An example to show the business contact quandary

Imagine if we were to literalize this scenario: If you have a conversation in a coffee shop with an employee, does the shop own the conversation? The fact that the two of you now know each others’ names? Probably not. But taken a step further can you own other people’s names, numbers, or necessary knowledge to make future interactions occur? When we strip contacts of the values we apply to them — business potential, social capital — contacts become units of knowledge that inform us how to recreate interactions. (Click here to tweet this quote.) They belong to us in the sense that they’re records of our personal interactions; they belong to a business in the sense that the business provided the resources for their acquisition. Fundamentally, they don’t belong to anyone any more than your conversation with the barista does. Contact information is real in the same way that history is; it happened but can’t be owned. It doesn’t belong to anyone, but it also belongs to everyone. As we continue to globalize, we mustn’t shy away from the realities that the digital world forces us to confront, realities that we didn’t have to contend with before. It’s a frightening lesson to see more of what we thought of as private revealed to be public and accessible to all. But success is as much about adapting to new paradigms as it is creating them, and the opportunities that arise — more efficient commerce, a greater ease of interaction and connection — will surely be worth any conceptual discomfort. Rory Channer is Chief Business Officer of CircleBack Inc..Rory has spent over 15 years in sales and marketing leadership positions predominantly in the information services, software and consulting sectors. His career has spanned leading sales and marketing departments for small startups to large multi-billion dollar corporations.