Thin Line Between 'Social Networking' and Solicitation

LinkedIn is probably the most popular social media site for connecting with other professionals. That’s because users provide only work-related information on their pages, such as skills, experience, certifications and networking groups. As a result, people have felt comfortable connecting with pretty much anyone in order to increase the size of their networks.

But a recent Illinois case demonstrates that some employers will try to take action against professionals over whom they connect with on LinkedIn if they feel their own interests are at stake.

In that case, insurance executive Greg Gelineau left his job in 2015 with a company called Bankers Life to work for a benefits company, American Senior Benefits, that apparently was considered a competitor.

Gelineau wanted to continue networking with people he got to know at Bankers Life and sent generic “invitation to connect” emails through LinkedIn to his former coworkers.

Bankers Life sued him, accusing him of violating a “non-solicitation” provision in the employment contract he’d signed when he worked for them. In that provision, he promised Bankers Life that for 24 months after leaving the company he wouldn’t seek to lure any other employee away.

According to Bankers Life, the LinkedIn invitations Gelineau sent to former colleagues constituted an attempt to recruit them to ASB. Bankers Life’s evidence was that individuals who got his invitation could follow a link to his profile page, where they’d see ASB job postings.

Gelineau countered that he never sent anyone a direct message. He merely used LinkedIn to send generic “invitation” email messages to everyone in his contacts.

A judge threw out the suit.

Bankers Life appealed, but the Illinois Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, finding that the invitations sent from Gelineau’s LinkedIn account were simply “passive social media activity” and that there was no targeted activity, like direct messages, that would constitute actual solicitation.

Other courts that have addressed this issue have ruled in similar ways. So, employees should feel safe connecting with old colleagues on LinkedIn but should be aware of when the line is crossed. If you as an employer are really that worried that LinkedIn contacts will cause a major exodus of valued employees, you can always talk to an employment lawyer about tightening up your non-solicitation agreements to more explicitly cover social media.

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