March 16, 2018

Social Media, Employer Information and Employee Privacy

Employers have certain restrictions on what they can and cannot ask in interviews.  They cannot ask specific questions of an applicant regarding his or her marital status, age, religion, or if they are planning to have children.  Recently, however, some employers have sought information from applicants which many see as an invasion of privacy and even illegal – the applicants’ Facebook passwords.

With social media becoming such an integral part of our lives, employers are starting to seek information about their applicants’ and employees’ social media presence.  Much of this information is public.  What is not public can sometimes be gained by an insider at the company, be it a friend who allows the employers to view the applicant’s page, or a Human Resource director who adds an applicant as a friend.  Some employers are going further, asking applicants for their log-in information, or asking them to log-in, right there in the interview.

The practice has been linked to a story published last year, in which an applicant to the Maryland Division of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSCS) was asked for his log-in information.  The applicant provided the information because he needed the job.  Many opponents to this practice argue the economy puts many applicants in the same position, turning the practice into something less voluntary, as employers argue.  While this practice has been suspended by DPSCS, it drew significant attention from employee advocates, including the ACLU and the federal government.

After these stories broke, Facebook warned employers that accessing applicant and employee accounts to check private information is potentially illegal.  Facebook representatives note that providing others with personal log-in information is a violation of their privacy terms which all users agree to when they sign up for an account.  Erin Egan, Facebook chief privacy officer recently wrote a lengthy blog post against the practice.

It is important that employers understand that there may be significant legal consequences for requesting an applicant’s or employee’s social media passwords.  Our experienced attorneys can help employers establish best practices for legally identifying and addressing problem applicants and employees.