Will Wisconsin be Next to Ban Employers from Accessing Employee Social Media Accounts?

Wisconsin may soon join fourteen other states that have adopted laws prohibiting employers from requesting usernames and passwords to access an employee’s or job applicant’s social media accounts, including Facebook® and Twitter®.

On Tuesday, August 20, 2013, the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor held a public hearing to discuss a bipartisan bill that would prohibit employers from accessing and monitoring the personal internet accounts of employees and job applicants. The bill would make it unlawful for employers to ask employees and applicants for their personal social media account passwords and would permit employees and applicants to file a complaint against their employer for violations of this law with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development in the same manner as an employment discrimination complaint. Besides restricting access to employees’ personal social media accounts, Senate Bill 223 would also make it unlawful for an employer to discharge or otherwise discriminate against any person for exercising the right to refuse a request for access to such accounts.

Although seen as a prohibition, Senate Bill 223 provides a number of protections for employers. The bill would not prohibit employers from accessing electronic communications devices, accounts, or services that the employer provides to its employee by virtue of the employment relationship or that are paid for by the employer and used for business purposes. Senate Bill 223 would also permit employers to restrict employees’ access to certain internet sites and monitor, review, or access electronic data stored on the employer’s own network and on devices provided by the employer. The bill would also afford employers certain protections to permit discipline or discharge of employees who transfer the employer’s proprietary or confidential information or financial data to the employee’s personal internet account without the employer’s authorization. Finally, Senate Bill 223 provides employers with a shield to legal liability against claims that an employer should have known, or should have monitored, an employee’s social media account in relation to claims for negligent hiring or negligent retention.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, similar laws have been introduced or are pending in at least 36 states. Eight states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington, have enacted legislation so far in 2013.

A federal law prohibiting employers from requesting or requiring employees and applicants to provide usernames, passwords, or any other form of access to personal social media accounts, is also being pushed through Congress. The Social Networking Online Protection Act was initially introduced in April 2012, but never made it to the House or Senate. The Act was re-introduced and assigned to the Congressional committee on February 6, 2013. If the Act passes committee, it will be passed on and considered by Congress.

Stay Tuned . . .

Employers should stay tuned to both the state and federal legislation that could potentially change the way employers conduct background checks for prospective employees and investigate allegations of misconduct regarding current employees. Please continue to check the Employment LawScene® for updates on these important anticipated changes in state and federal law.