As more salespeople leverage social media to find and engage prospects, companies are investing in social selling training and tools to further their efforts. This brave new world has created new opportunities and challenges for B2B sales and marketing leaders, and lots of gray areas when it comes to deciding what salespeople can and cannot do in the social sphere. The stakes are high – a misplaced comment can mean the loss of a key account, or ammunition for competitors.
We’re getting a lot of questions about establishing social guidelines, specifically what companies can and cannot regulate, mandate and enforce. To help answer some of the most common questions, we enlisted the help of Jennifer Rubin, a San Diego-based partner with the Mintz Levin law firm, whose practice focuses on employment law.
Can we mandate what our reps put on their LinkedIn profiles, including how they dress for their photos and what they put in their headlines?
According to Rubin, because LinkedIn is recognized as a professional network (as opposed to Facebook, which is considered more of a personal one), all company employees are considered representatives of their company on LinkedIn, and the company has the right to establish and enforce guidelines on what can and cannot be on an employee’s profile.
“A company sending a group of salespeople to represent their company at a trade show typically establishes the acceptable dress code – for example, business attire or business casual, including the dreaded company polo/khaki combination – based on the image the company wants to project. A salesperson who decides to show up in cutoffs and a t-shirt would be in violation of that policy and inconsistent with the desired image, and may be asked to leave the trade show floor, and likely the company.”
LinkedIn can be viewed in the same way, says Rubin. A company that requires its salespeople to dress in a certain way when engaged with buyers can require that its reps’ LinkedIn photos reflect that dress policy. As for the reps’ headlines (which should include job title and role), “Just like you would not allow your reps to put whatever title they’d like on their business cards (we can only imagine how many would say “Sales Ninja” if they could), companies can mandate acceptable headlines for their salespeople.”
This is why, if a rep’s profile looks like a resume, it sends the wrong message to a potential buyer. Imagine walking up to a booth at a trade show and being handed the salesperson’s resume. You’d probably think twice before working with the rep or the company.
We pay for our salespeoples’ subscriptions to LinkedIn Sales Navigator (a premium version with advanced search and contact management capabilities). Do we own those profiles? When a rep leaves the company, can we prohibit them from taking their connection with them?
According to Rubin, a LinkedIn profile belongs to the individual, not the company, and a company cannot prohibit the employee from owning and using that profile post-employment. It can, of course, stop paying for the individual’s premium subscription.
The thornier question is, can the company prohibit employee from taking their LinkedIn connections with them, or at least the connections they made as an employee? Well, yes and no.
“Let’s say you’ve sent a rep to a trade show. They engage in a conversation with a potential customer and exchange business cards, with the prospect’s contact information. During their conversation, the rep jots down some notes about the prospect on the back of their card, what their budget might be for a purchase, what they specifically are looking for, their key considerations, etc.” If that rep leaves the company, he or she cannot be prohibited from taking information about the prospect that is considered in the public domain – for example, the contact information printed on the front of the card. “But the law protects companies from having employees take proprietary information with them when they leave the company – information that is not publicly available,” which may include the information contained in the notes jotted on the back of the card.
“The same holds true for LinkedIn connections. The company cannot prevent the rep from taking their connections’ contact info with them (because, after all, that information is available to any LinkedIn member), but they can prohibit the rep from taking any propriety information that may be captured in notes within LinkedIn.” While the law is clear on this distinction, Rubin recognizes the practical challenge of enforcing it. “The reality is that some of this proprietary information may reside in the salesperson’s head, and prohibiting them from using it could be difficult. Clearly outlining this in your social guidelines can help a company in the event that it decides to take legal action against a former employee looking to leverage proprietary data for a competitor.”
We have reps who use their Twitter accounts to tweet on behalf of the company and share personal information. Can we limit what they say? Could that be considered a violation of free speech?
“Because Twitter is commonly used both personally and professionally, there is a lot of confusion around what employers can and cannot mandate,“ says Rubin. She suggests establishing clear guidelines about acceptable subjects and, more importantly, those to be avoided.
“Common sense needs to dictate your policies. Coming back to our trade show analogy, I don’t know of a company that would allow their employees to wear campaign buttons supporting a specific candidate in an election year. When an employee is using their Twitter account on behalf of their company, they are representing the company – and the company has the right to establish and enforce guidelines around what can and cannot be tweeted,“ Rubin states. “If you wouldn’t want your reps to be discussing politics or religion with the traffic on the trade show floor, you should establish those types of guidelines for what is acceptable Twitter matter.” This also goes for the sharing of photographs. “You probably would not mind if a rep shared a photo of children or pets with a prospect while chatting at the trade show booth. But a photo that was taken in Vegas and should have stayed in Vegas – not so much.”
Rubin suggests that employees establish private Twitter accounts using the highest private security settings if they are adamant about sharing political or religious beliefs.
So next time you’re in doubt about social selling guidelines, think of the trade show: If it’s something you wouldn’t allow a rep to do on the trade show floor, you probably don’t want them doing it on social media. After all, social media can be considered the ultimate professional trade show – without the tchotchkes.