State laws ban employer access to workforce’s social media

Employers, including private companies and educational institutions, are being forcibly shut out of their employees’ social media accounts as privacy advocates push for more action from legislators.

This month, Louisiana joined nearly a dozen other states that have enacted laws that prohibit employers from requiring or penalizing workers who fail to fork over personal online account information. Thanks to the Personal Online Account Privacy Protection Act, all Louisiana-based public, private and educational employers are banned from retaliating against employees who do not provide usernames, passwords and other personal information.

So far in 2014, Maine, Wisconsin and Tennessee have all crafted laws relating to employer access to social media usernames and passwords, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that more states are enacting legislation,” says Jaklyn Wrigley, an associate at law firm Fisher & Phillips, who represents employers in Mississippi and on the federal level. “It’s a personal realm; that’s where you engage in communication with people that doesn’t have anything to do with work or school. So it makes sense – unless there is a reason for the employer or the university to really stick its nose into that aspect of your personal business – that it is protected without fear of some sort of retaliation.”

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The issue of employer social media access was first addressed in 2012 with introduction of the Password Protection Act, which aimed to prevent employers from demanding access to their potential or current workers’ personal social media. At the time, a Workplace Options and Public Policy Polling survey discovered that 89% of American workers felt their employers had no right to demand their social media login information, and 68% predicted that forcing workers to hand over this information would cripple the already shaky employer-employee relationship.

Alan King, president and chief operating officer of Workplace Options, tells EBN that employer access to personal online information remains “a tricky issue.”

“There are several levels of concern for both parties, but when you look at the big picture, it really boils down to trust, engagement and security,” King says. “It’s dangerous to say that prohibiting employer access to search or monitor employee activity online or through social media sites will improve employee well-being across the board. That may be the case in some instances; it may not be in others.”

According to King, there is a fine line for both employers and employees to walk when policing this new-age issue.

“Employees need to know that what they do or say online or outside of work can impact their professional lives, even if they are off the clock,” he says. “But employers also need to hear and understand that too much interest in what an employee does in their personal life can be bad for business.”

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Social media monitoring proposals are being considered by 28 state legislative bodies, the NCSL says. As Wrigley notes, social media awareness and privacy concerns in the workplace are not going away anytime soon.  

“[The legislation landscape] is really interesting … this age where everyone and their mother is on social media. So it makes sense that lawmakers have an eye to protect their constituents, and employers are also mindful of the privacy rights of [their] employees and applicants,” Wrigley says. She says it is also logical for employers to prepare themselves with company social media policies – if they haven’t already.

“From a productivity standpoint, it makes sense to have a social media policy that prohibits your employees from engaging in non-work-related internet use while in the workplace, especially if you are providing your employee with some sort of electronic device,” she says. 

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