There are more reports of employers requiring applicants and employees to provide their passwords to their Facebook pages so that the employers can get a more accurate view of the employee’s character. I wrote about this issue a couple of years ago regarding the City of Bozeman requiring passwords from applicants. Apart from being a bad recruiting move, I believe it could arguably run afoul of California law as well.
Legality aside, employers that require this information will simply not get qualified applicants. I expect that most applicants or employees would simply refuse to provide this information. In addition, only people that don’t use social media much would have no problems with turning over their passwords. But companies need employees who understand social media these days, not someone who lacks initiative and some basic curiosity to at least log on to Facebook to see what the rest of the world is talking about.
In addition, there may be some real challenges against employers in California who require this information. First off, in California, Article I, Section I of the California Constitution guarantees citizens a right of privacy:
All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.
This right to privacy carries over to the workplace, but is even more protected when the employee is conducting personal activities during non-working hours. A person’s privacy expectation in their Facebook posts is very low since it is on the Internet. But one could argue that off-work conduct (which includes Facebook activity) is part of the employee’s privacy right recognized in the California Constitution.
Furthermore, section 96(k) of the Labor Code provides that the California Labor Commissioner may assert on behalf of employees:
Claims for loss of wages as the result of demotion, suspension, or discharge from employment for lawful conduct occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises.
For example, in Barbee v. Household Automotive Finance Corp. (2003), a court provided some guidance about the ramifications of section 96(k). Barbee was dating a subordinate at work, which violated the company’s policy and created a conflict of interest. The company gave Barbee and the employee with whom he was involved the option that one of them had to resign or to end the relationship. Barbee refused to resign, and they did not end the relationship, so the company terminated Barbee. Barbee sued, arguing that the company violated Labor Code section 96(k) in that his employer was regulating his lawful conduct during personal time. The court rejected Barbee’s argument in stating:
We conclude that Labor Code section 96, subdivision (k) does not set forth an independent public policy that provides employees with any substantive rights, but, rather, merely establishes a procedure by which the Labor Commissioner may assert, on behalf of employees, recognized constitutional rights. Therefore, in order to prevail on his wrongful termination claim, Barbee must establish that his employment was terminated because he asserted civil rights guaranteed by
article I of the California Constitution. We conclude that Barbee cannot make this showing and therefore he cannot establish the first necessary element of his wrongful termination claim.
While the court held that the company’s actions in that case did not violate section 96(k), the facts were very favorable to the employer, and there are other arguments available to employees. For example, an employee may also argue violation of Labor Code Section 98.6 which states in part that “no person shall discharge any employee … because the employee … engaged in any conduct delineated in this chapter, including the conduct described in subdivision (k) of Section 96 ….”
Unfortunately, there are not many reported cases dealing with these issues. However, with the ubiquity of Facebook and other social medial sites, legislatures and courts will undoubtedly need to weight into these issues.