The ability to transition ethically and legally from one job to another has always been something of an art.
Now, in these days of personal gadgetry and social media mania, it's become infinitely more difficult moving from old employment to new. Today's job changers must figure out how to untangle personal information and unplug personal electronics from company property. And the lines aren't always clear.
That personal e-mail sent to your work account -- is that yours or the company's when it comes time to part? Those project notes you pounded out on your home keyboard one weekend -- are those ideas yours or your firm's? You may be asked to give back your company-issued smartphone, but can you keep the actual telephone number, the only way your spouse and kids know how to reach you?
Add to that questions around your use of social media -- if you managed to rack up 10,000 loyal Twitter followers by tweeting in connection with your company and position, whose followers are they? What if you set up a Facebook user group to discuss tech topics important to your work -- when you leave, are those groups now the province of your replacement?
"Company policy, the law, issues around intellectual property, social media, ethics, they're really not clear," says Miriam Reiss, Ph.D., a business and personal coach based in Los Angeles. "In most companies there's a very fuzzy social media policy that doesn't address what needs to be addressed. Or there's no social media policy at all."
In the face of such fuzziness, what's an IT employee to do when it comes time to depart? Computerworld checked in with high-tech job changers, lawyers and HR pros to learn how workers should best manage the process of separating the personal from the professional.
Their takeaway? The rules of the road depend on the company you work for and its policies, which can be all over the map. Read your employee manual carefully. Talk openly with your boss. And if you're still unsure, you might want to invest in a lawyer who specializes in this area before you make any employment switch.
My tweet, myself
Erica Driver, senior director of product marketing at Qlik Technologies Inc., has done her fair share of disentangling in the past few years. She left a position at Forrester Research Inc. to become an independent analyst before taking her current job at Qlik, which is headquartered in Radnor, Pa.
Driver, who works out of the company's Newton, Mass., office, has had the same Twitter account and many of the same followers since 2007, when she was still working at Forrester.
She considers those followers to be one of her assets in the marketplace. "Twitter is about connections, and what makes a person valuable to a company are those kinds of relationships. Companies want to have people with influence and contacts," she says, noting that those contacts could be seen as potential clients and customers.
Driver believes her various employers have no claim to her Twitter account or her followers.
True, she tweets about topics related to her work, but she does so in an account that's in her name. "Those are key points: Is the account in your name? Are you tweeting on behalf of the company or tweeting as yourself? That's very different as me tweeting as customer service at company X," Driver says.
(Like many companies at the time, Forrester didn't have a Twitter policy when she left, but issued new social media policies, particularly around blogging, after her departure, she says.)
Laying down the law
"What you're really raising is the question of how old-fashioned rules apply in the new world," says Jonathan Segal, a partner in the Employment, Labor, Benefits and Immigration Practice Group at Duane Morris LLP.
Standard rules say that what a worker creates in the course of employment is the employer's property, regardless of whether it's a paper document or the content of a blog or the extensive e-mail list an employee has compiled on her smartphone.
Leaving? Do it legally
How you handle your highly wired work life when you're ready to leave one job for another can mean the difference between a graceful exit and one marred by legal wrangling. Employment experts say:
* Don't use Facebook or any other social medium to invite former colleagues to join you at your new job -- this could get you in legal hot water, especially if you signed a non-solicitation agreement with your previous employer.
* Don't re-use blogs that you wrote, even if on your personal time, that concern your previous employer or any work you did while there.
* Consult your employee manual about which files you're allowed to take with you. Even removing photos of your kids after you've given notice could send up red flags.
* Be scrupulous about keeping little, if any, personal data on your corporate-issued gear -- regularly delete that kind of info from your work machine, especially if you think you may soon be in the job market, voluntarily or otherwise.
* Don't Tweet or post details about your departure. You could be endangering exit agreements or spreading the news to contacts who are about to become your new competitors.
"The general advice we give when people leave a company is you should leave everything behind. So you leave the contacts behind -- that means you take them off BlackBerries, PDAs, smartphones," he says. "Contacts may be [employer property] if the employer has invested in those relationships, and that includes creating the technology and providing the employee the time for engaging in social networking."
In the best of all worlds, companies should have clear policies regarding these issues, and workers should maintain separate electronic devices for business and personal use.
That said, Segal also believes that workers need some wiggle room, and employers should be reasonable in meeting that need.
Segal acknowledges that the personal and professional have become so blurred -- even when such policies are in place -- that departing employees often do need to access and take information stored on company computers, and, conversely, that companies may feel the need to access personal devices in search of corporate data.
Workers should be able to take personal data such as digital photos or contact information for their kids' teachers. In many cases, Segal believes, they should also be allowed to print out or forward some professional material -- for instance, contact names to a user group -- provided they can argue that what they're taking isn't protected, proprietary or confidential to the firm.