LinkedIn Company Groups create privacy concerns

Potential privacy issues through social media are currently taking the form of a beast that many companies are fighting hard to combat. With these seemingly private groups, employees with less understanding of how third-party communities work may share potentially proprietary information about customers, partners, product roadmaps or even financials.

LinkedIn recently rolled out its Company Groups, which according to the site is a "private place on LinkedIn where you can communicate and collaborate with your co-workers." These groups are not company-run or managed; they are automatically populated with LinkedIn users who list Company A as his or her current employer and who have seemingly valid Company A email addresses. This level of verification is not uncommon with social networking tools (this method is similar to how Facebook sets permissions for company networks). However it's the encouragement of private conversations that brings about the biggest privacy concerns.

Potential privacy issues through social media are currently taking the form of a beast that many companies are fighting hard to combat. With these seemingly private groups, employees with less understanding of how third-party communities work may share potentially proprietary information about customers, partners, product roadmaps or even financials.

While employees should never share unapproved company information via an external social networking site, LinkedIn’s lack of management tools for an assigned, verified company representative is also disconcerting -- especially since these groups seem to be generated largely in part by honor system.

According to LinkedIn's help documents for Company Groups:

"When someone leaves the company and updates their position on their LinkedIn profile, they are automatically removed from the company network since the company network is for current employees only."

Great! But then...

"If the person has forgotten to update their LinkedIn profile, you can flag their position to indicate that they no longer work at the company and that they should be removed from the company network. The system will take these flags into account and seek to re-confirm the user's work email address if they try and access the company network."

Let me paint the potential scene into a concise little picture:

  • Employee A leaves Company A to go to Company B – perhaps a competitor?
  • Employee A does not change his or her current employer on LinkedIn
  • Employees B-Z continue to have unmoderated conversations about Company A in its LinkedIn Company Group
  • Employee A has access to this information until a diligent employee of Company A happens to notice that Employee A is still on the list and then notifies LinkedIn
  • Employee A continues to have access until LinkedIn verifies the flagged concern and deactivates Employee A’s access (currently no reported timeline for doing so)

Even if management tools were in place for company representatives to control memberships and content, these types of conversations on social networks are scary. In fairness to LinkedIn, the site is not ultimately responsible for controlling the content and practices of its users when it comes to proprietary matters. The companies and their employees are. Thus creating yet another case for companies, regardless of whether or not they have a social media culture, to administer social media communications guidelines to its employees.

LinkedIn's Company Groups are currently in beta and are likely having some kinks worked out on the back end. I'd like to see the LinkedIn team take these issues into account as they are preparing the general release of the service. Or, at the very least, include some warnings for employees to check their companies' social media policies before encouraging them to share any information.

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