Has a potential employer asked you to provide your password to a social media account? Or asked you to bring up your social media page during an interview? Perhaps your employer has asked you to plug company products or services on your private account or insisted that you accept a “friend” request from your manager.
If you’ve faced any of these requests in the workplace, you’re not alone. In recent years, employers have become increasingly concerned about what employees and potential employees are posting on social media sites. Some employers want to weed out unprofessional or unqualified job applicants. Others want to make sure that their workers aren’t posting offensive messages or negative statements about the company. And some may just want just want to keep tabs on employees, whether they are on duty or off.
A growing number of state legislatures have stepped in to ban this practice. If you work in one of these states, you might be protected if your employer tries to get access to your social media accounts.
The first widely publicized case of an employer asking an employee to hand over his social media password happened in Maryland. In 2011, state Department of Corrections employee Robert Collins went to his recertification interview, where he was asked to provide his Facebook password. According to news reports, Collins then had to sit there while his interviewer scrolled through online posts by his friends and family, apparently looking for anything that might conflict with his duties as a corrections officer. Collins went to the ACLU, which publicized the case. Shortly after, Maryland became the first state to ban employers from asking employees or job applicants for access to their private social media pages.
Since Maryland passed its law in 2012, many other states have followed suit. Nearly half of the states (including California, Virginia, and Illinois) now protect applicants and employees from having to provide social media passwords to employers or otherwise give employers access to their accounts. More states consider passing these laws each year.
These laws differ in the details, including what employers may do and what remedies employees have if their rights are violated. In addition to prohibiting employers from asking for or requiring prospective and current employees from providing their passwords, some state laws prohibit employers from:
If a prospective or current employer has asked you to compromise the privacy of your social media accounts, talk to an experienced local employment lawyer right away. Because this area of the law is rapidly evolving, you’ll need to consult with a lawyer who is up to date on legal developments in your state—and on how courts have interpreted existing laws. Especially if your employer retaliates against you for refusing to hand over your social media password (for example, by taking you out of the running for a promotion), you may have a strong legal claim.
The above rules apply when an employer is trying to gain access to an employee's private social media account. However, under federal labor laws, employees also have certain rights when it comes to the content of their social media posts. To find out what kind of posts are protected, see Do Labor Laws Protect Employee Posts on Social Media?