FindLaw KnowledgeBasePublished: 2012-06-20
A growing number of employers have begun asking employees and job applicants for their Facebook and other social media passwords. Applicants in need of a job and employees who want to keep their jobs feel pressured to agree to provide them. This is particularly so in the economy of the last few years that has resulted in high unemployment nationwide. The practice raises serious concerns about privacy violations among other things.
Through Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and personal blogs employees now broadcast personal information and opinions to a wider audience than ever before. Information such as updates on day-to-day activities, life events and opinions on a wide variety of subjects is now posted online. While many sites permit employees to carefully select their audience using the social media’s privacy settings, even the selected audience is oftentimes a large number of people. This begs the question: What is public and what is private in the Internet world?
By accessing employees’ social media websites, employers may find unbecoming or even incriminating information or photos that provide fodder to terminate an employee or make it less likely the employer will hire an applicant. Employers have also begun to troll sites to monitor the information being posted out of concerns, such as:
- Unauthorized disclosure of the employer's confidential information
- Posts on social media sites that disparage the employer or its customers
- Blog posts or comments via social media regarding inside information about mass layoffs, confidential settlements or severance agreements
A Scarcity of Laws Regarding Social Media and the Workplace
No federal law currently prevents an employer from asking for an employee’s password to his or her social media websites. However, legislation has been introduced in Congress to address the issue. Several states, Massachusetts among them, have also introduced similar legislation. Massachusetts’ bill would prohibit this practice but allow employers to regulate their employees’ access to social media websites while at work.
Even if there is no law specifically prohibiting employers from obtaining the Facebook and other passwords of its employees and job applicants, there are potential legal ramifications. Most social media sites’ privacy policies explicitly prohibit users from giving out their passwords to others. When a user creates an account he or she is required to agree to the policy. Effectively then, employers are forcing employees to violate their agreements with the social media sites.
Also, employers may face legal ramifications if the information obtained is used illegally. For example, if an employer uses a social media website to discover that an employee is pregnant and fires the employee for that reason, the employer would be susceptible to a discrimination claim. The employer could also be liable if the employer uses social media or blogs to discover the sexual orientation, whistle-blowing activities or information on some other protected characteristic or activity and then uses that information as the basis for dismissing an employee.
If you have questions regarding your right to privacy in the workplace or if you believe you have been fired illegally, contact an experienced employment law attorney to discuss your legal options and rights.