By Jacob Passy
In 26 states, employers cannot coerce employees into handing over information from their social media accounts
How private is your Facebook?
Starting Jan. 1, Vermont became the latest state to prohibit employers from requiring or even requesting that workers provide access to their private social media accounts, or even make them add them as a Facebook "friend." Even as these laws become more commonplace though, experts warn that consumers need to be careful about what they post on Facebook (FB), Instagram and Twitter (TWTR).
The newly enacted legislation (https://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Documents/2018/Docs/ACTS/ACT037/ACT037%20As%20Enacted.pdf) includes exemptions in instances where companies need information to comply with legal or regulatory requirements (such as in the case of a criminal investigation) or if they are looking into unlawful harassment or disclosure of confidential information.
The law makes Vermont the 26th state to establish a right to privacy on social media for employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (http://www.ncsl.org/research/telecommunications-and-information-technology/state-laws-prohibiting-access-to-social-media-usernames-and-passwords.aspx). Meanwhile, in 15 states and the District of Columbia, similar laws exist to protect students, and Wisconsin even has a statute that applies to tenants and landlords.
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As social media becomes more commonplace, laws like these have cropped up to protect consumers essentially from themselves as negative or inappropriate content posted online could be a job applicant or employee's downfall. Nearly half (45%) of human resources managers said posting negative or inappropriate comments on social media would reduce an applicant's chances of being hired, according to a 2016 survey from OfficeTeam (https://www.roberthalf.com/blog/job-interview-tips/social-media-mistakes?utm_campaign=Press_Release&utm_medium=Link&utm_source=Press_Release&_ga=2.192510762.1419624077.1514919448-1005742558.1514919448).
"Employers may also be looking for red flags, like inconsistencies with representations made on an applicant's resume, that would deter them from hiring the candidate," said Brandi Britton, district president of OfficeTeam.
"Social media law has really been a hotbed of activity over the last few years," said Shelley Sayward, government affairs director for the Vermont State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management. Sayward testified before the Vermont state legislature regarding the law.
Here's what employees need to know about social media etiquette:
Workers should consider whether to make their accounts private, but employers will likely see that inappropriate post nonetheless
If a social media account is public, it's all but guaranteed to crop up in a simple Google search, said Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster, a job search company. Regardless of where you live, "assume that they're going to access it anyway," Salemi said.
And most of these laws do not ban employers from performing these searches. Plus, even if the employer doesn't find the applicant's accounts on their own, there's a good chance that a worker will be in the same social network as a potential recruiter or their boss' confidants, and they could easily share the information, Salemi said. "Don't put anything online that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the newspaper," she said.
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Even when states don't bar it, workers should push back on providing account information
Just because a law doesn't exist doesn't mean that workers should feel like they have no choice but to hand over information pertaining to their social media accounts, Salemi said. If asked, job applicants and employees should inquire further as to why the request was made in the first place, she said.
Anyone in such a position should document their exchange with their superiors or human resources. Employees should familiarize themselves with their company's social media policy, if they have one, to avoid unintentionally ruffling any feathers. For instance, media organizations typically ask employees not to post partisan political stories, or even retweet them.
In some fields, employers may still expect access to social media accounts
While they may not be legally allowed to ask for account information, employers in certain sectors may still expect to be able to assess a potential hire's social media profiles. A company looking to hire a designer, for instance, may want to check out an applicant's Instagram to get a sense of their talent and aesthetics.
"Many companies today rely on creative professionals to help build their firms' online image, so they want to see that prospective hires have been able to do the same for themselves," Britton said. "It may be a red flag to some employers if they aren't able to find a LinkedIn profile or anything else about you online."
-Jacob Passy; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
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