The Law and Business of Social Media
July 17, 2015 - Privacy, Employment Law, Compliance

Employer Access to Employee Social Media: Applicant Screening, “Friend” Requests and Workplace Investigations

Employer Access to Employee Social Media: Applicant Screening, “Friend” Requests and Workplace Investigations

A recent survey of hiring managers and human resource professionals reports that more than 43 percent of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates. This interest in social networking does not end when the candidate is hired: To the contrary, companies are seeking to leverage the personal social media networks of their existing employees, including for their own marketing purposes, as well as to inspect personal social media in workplace investigations. As employer social media practices continue to evolve, individuals and privacy advocacy groups have grown increasingly concerned about employers intruding upon applicants’ or employees’ privacy by viewing restricted-access social media accounts.

Although federal legislation has been proposed several times (see here and here), efforts to enact a national social media privacy law have not been successful. In the absence of such legislation, states are actively seeking to address employee social media privacy issues. In 2014, six states passed social media laws, and, since the beginning of 2015, four more states have passed or expanded their social media laws. Similar legislation is pending in at least eight more states. In total, 22 states have now passed special laws restricting employer access to personal social media accounts of applicants and employees (“state social media laws”).

These state social media laws restrict an employer’s ability to access personal social media accounts of applicants or employees, to ask an employee to “friend” a supervisor or other employer representative and to inspect employees’ personal social media. The state social media laws also have broader implications for common practices such as applicant screening and workplace investigations, as discussed below.

Key Restrictions Under State Social Media Laws

As a general matter, these state social media laws bar employers from requiring or even “requesting” that an applicant or employee (21 of the 22 state laws protect both current employees and applicants; New Mexico’s law protects only applicants) disclose the user name or password to his or her personal social media account. Some of these state laws also impose other express restrictions, such as prohibiting an employer from requiring or requesting that an applicant or employee:

  • add an employee, supervisor or administrator to the friends or contacts list of his or her personal social media account;
  • change privacy settings of his or her personal social media account;
  • disclose information that allows access to or observation of his or her personal social media account, or otherwise grant access in any manner to his or her personal social media account;
  • access personal social media in the employer’s presence, or otherwise allow observation of the personal social media account; or
  • divulge personal social media.

These laws also prohibit an employer from retaliating against, disciplining or discharging an employee, or refusing to hire an applicant, for failing to comply with a prohibited requirement or request.

For example, a few states, like New Mexico, only cover traditional social networking accounts, while most other state laws broadly apply to any electronic medium or service that allows users to create, share or view user-generated content, including videos, photographs, blogs, podcasts, messages, emails and website profiles generally. Some of these laws only prohibit employers from seeking passwords or other login credentials to the personal social media account, while other states impose broader restrictions described above. For example, Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon and Washington prohibit an employer from requesting that an employee allow the employer access to his or her personal social media accounts; and California, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Michigan, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington prohibit an employer from requesting an employee to access his or her personal account in the presence of the employer. Certain states prohibit an employer from requiring an employee to change his or her privacy settings to allow the employer access to his or her private social media accounts, although it is possible that such a restriction might be inferred from at least some of the other state laws as well. Even more confusing are the inconsistencies across state laws with respect to exceptions for workplace investigations, as discussed below.

While state laws differ significantly, however, the general message is clear: Employers must evaluate their current practices and policies to ensure compliance with these laws.

What Every Employer Should Know About State Social Media Laws

A.        Applicant Screening

In general, these state social media laws do not limit an employer’s ability to review public information, such as information that may be available to the general public on an applicant’s social media pages. Instead, these laws limit an employer’s attempts to gain access to the individual’s social media accounts by means such as requesting login credentials, privacy setting changes or permission to view the accounts.

Additionally, most of these laws explicitly state that they do not prohibit viewing information about an applicant that is available to the public; for example, the Michigan law “does not prohibit or restrict an employer from viewing, accessing, or utilizing information about an employee or applicant that can be obtained without any required access information or that is available in the public domain.”All of these state social media laws, however, prohibit employers from seeking access to the nonpublic social media pages of applicants. In practice, this means that employers should avoid asking applicants about the existence of personal social media accounts and requesting, or even suggesting, that an applicant friend the employer or a third party, including a company that provides applicant background investigations.

B.        Friend Requests    

Certain laws expressly restrict an employer’s ability to encourage an employee to friend or add anyone to the list of contacts for his or her personal social media account. This may include, but is not limited to, the employer, its agents, supervisors or other employees.

For example, Colorado’s social media legislation states that an employer shall not “compel an employee or applicant to add anyone, including the employer or his or her agent, to the employee’s or applicant’s list of contacts associated with a social media account,” and many other laws contain this type of prohibition against requesting access via what may be intended as a harmless friend request.

Although these laws do not prohibit a subordinate from friending a manager or supervisor, employers should exercise care not to require, or even request or encourage, employees to friend supervisors or other company representatives.  Employers in states without social media laws or states with laws that allow “friending” should nevertheless proceed with caution when requesting access to an employee’s or applicant’s personal social media pages and think twice about “friending” or “following” employees. If an employer learns about an employee’s legally protected characteristic (such as religion, pregnancy, medical condition or family medical history) or legally protected activity (such as political or labor union activity), the employer may face greater exposure to discrimination claims if it later takes adverse action against the employee.

These restrictions may be particularly significant for employers seeking to leverage employees’ personal social media connections for work-related marketing or business development purposes. Employers should be aware that, even in states without an express restriction on friend requests, a law that generally prohibits an employer from attempting to access an employee’s or applicant’s social media account may effectively limit an employer’s ability to require or encourage employees to friend people.

C.     Account Creation and Advertising

 Recently, Oregon amended its existing social media law to prohibit categories of employer conduct not previously addressed in any of the existing social media laws. Under the new amendment (which takes effect on January 1, 2016), employers are prohibited from requiring or requesting that an applicant or employee establish or maintain a personal social media account or that an applicant or employee authorize the employer to advertise on his or her personal social media account. Notably, the Virginia law, which went into effect July 1, 2015, implies that an employer may be permitted to engage in the type of conduct the Oregon law seeks to prevent. The Virginia law explicitly excludes from covered information an account set up by the employee at the request of the employer.

D.     Investigations

One of the most challenging areas under state social media laws involves an employer’s ability to inspect or gain access to employees’ personal social media in connection with workplace investigations. An employer may wish to access an employee’s social media account, for example, if an employee complains of harassment or threats made by another employee on social media or if the employer receives a report that an employee is posting proprietary or confidential information or otherwise violating company policy. Some of the state social media laws provide at least limited exceptions for workplace investigations, while others do not.

No express exception for investigations: The Illinois and Nevada social media laws do not provide any express exception for workplace investigations that might require access to an employee’s personal social media accounts. This suggests that an employer’s investigation of potential misconduct or legal violations may not justify requesting or requiring an employee to disclose his or her social media login credentials. (We note that, perhaps in an effort to broaden employer investigation efforts and clarify an existing ambiguity, Illinois amended its law so that, where the access sought by the employer relates to a professional account, an employer is not restricted from complying with a duty to screen employees or applicants, or to monitor or retain employee communications as required by law.)

Limited exception for investigations of legal violations:  California’s social media law provides that it does not limit an employer’s ability to request that an employee divulge personal social media in connection with an investigation of employee violations of applicable laws. However, this exception does not appear to extend to other prohibited activities, such as asking an employee to disclose his or her user name and password for a personal social media account. Other states provide exceptions only for investigations of specific types of legal violations. For example, the Colorado and Maryland social media laws only provide an exception for investigating violations of securities laws or potential misappropriation of proprietary information.

Limited exception for misconduct investigations: Some social media laws extend the exception beyond investigations of legal violations to investigations of alleged misconduct. These states include California, Oregon and Washington. In general, these laws allow an employer to ask an employee to divulge content from a personal social media account, but still do not allow the employer to request the employee’s login credentials. In contrast, some states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland and Michigan permit an employer to request any employee’s social media login credentials to investigate workplace misconduct.

Given these differences, employers should be mindful of the broad range of investigative exceptions in state social media laws. Before initiating an investigation that may benefit from or require access to an employee’s personal social media, an employer should first consider the restrictions imposed by the applicable state law and the scope of any investigatory exception offered by that law.

E.     Best Practices

Given the inconsistencies among the different laws, it is challenging for multistate employers to manage compliance with all state social media laws. Even if it is not the employer’s practice to seek access to its employees’ or applicants’ private social media pages, there are less obvious components of the laws that will affect almost every employer, and employers should consider the following measures.

Review hiring practices for compliance with social media laws: Employers should ensure that all employees involved in the hiring process are aware of the restrictions imposed by these state social media laws. For example, recruiters and hiring managers should refrain from inquiring about an applicant’s personal social media pages or requesting access to such pages. While these state social media laws do not prohibit employers from accessing publicly available personal social media sites, employers will also want to evaluate whether this practice is advisable, given the risk of stumbling across legally protected information that cannot be used in employment decisions.

Implement social media guidelines: Employers should implement social media guidelines to mitigate potential risks posed by employee social media postings, being mindful of restrictions arising under the National Labor Relations Act and other federal and state laws. Employers also should ensure that their social media guidelines do not run afoul of these state social media laws.

Educate and train personnel: Personnel involved in internal investigations, such as human resources and internal audit personnel, need to be aware of the growing restrictions on employer access to employee personal social media accounts. Prior to seeking access to an employee’s personal social media account, or content from such an account, the internal investigators should check any applicable restrictions. In general, given the general trends in these laws, employers should avoid requesting login credentials to employees’ personal social media accounts, even in the investigation context, unless they have first consulted legal counsel.