Lawmakers Scrutinize Employer Efforts to Access Employee and Applicant Private Social Media Web Sites

April 28, 2012

By: Christa Richer Cook

As we noted in our June 17, 2010 blog post, social networking sites have become a popular tool for employers seeking information about job applicants during the hiring process.  However, employers' efforts to obtain information that enables them to access their employees' and applicants' private social media web sites have recently been subject to increased scrutiny by New York State and Federal legislators.

On April 13, 2012, New York State Senator Liz Krueger sponsored and introduced a bill that would prohibit employers, as well as their agents or representatives, from requiring employees or job applicants to disclose log-in names, passwords, or other means for accessing a personal account or service through an electronic communications device.  This includes information such as private social media account log-in names and personal e-mail account passwords.  This proposed legislation would also prohibit employers from discharging, disciplining, or otherwise penalizing an employee, or failing to hire an applicant, based on the refusal to provide information that would enable the employer to access personal accounts or services through an electronic communications device.  The New York Attorney General would have the authority under the proposed legislation to enjoin employers from committing such unlawful practices, and employers could be subject to a $300.00 fine for a first offense and a $500.00 fine for each subsequent offense.

This proposed legislation comes just weeks after U.S. Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sent open letters to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice urging the agencies to investigate employers' practice of requiring applicants to provide Facebook and e-mail passwords as a condition for job interviews.

Efforts to enact legislation similar to the New York bill are currently underway in several states.  In fact, Maryland recently became the first state to enact legislation that prohibits employers from requiring that employees or applicants disclose user names, passwords, or other means for accessing a personal account or service through an electronic communications device.

As we indicated in our June 17, 2010 blog post, employers should be careful even when viewing publicly available information regarding applicants on social media web sites.  Because Facebook and other similar web sites potentially contain a plethora of information about job applicants that employers cannot consider during the hiring process (e.g., race, national origin, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, etc.), employers should exercise caution in using social media web sites to screen applicants.  Employers who choose to use social media in the hiring process should promulgate a clear policy and procedure for utilizing this tool, and should closely follow the developments in this area of the law.