Do you use Facebook or Twitter? Even if you don’t tweet or update your status from the office, some employers are legally allowed to fire you for what you post — anywhere.
The good news: Lawmakers are setting boundaries when it comes to how far employers can pry into their workers’ social (media) lives.
The bad news: We still have a long way to go in the privacy wars — and there are plenty of minefields you can fall into if you’re not careful with your online presence.
As TLNT.com reports, Rhode Island recently passed laws prohibiting employers from asking employees for certain personal social media information. This includes disclosing passwords, changing their privacy settings and divulging content they’ve shared. The laws also prevent employers from taking action against employees who refuse to do these things.
This may seem like common sense legislation to you — what employees do under the privacy of their own social media settings should be none of employers’ business, right? As long as your Facebook feed is set to “friends only” and your bosses don’t know your Twitter handle, you should be covered… right?
Maybe, but Rhode Island is only the fifth state to enact such laws. Other states have proposals in the works, but they’re still under review. Which means if you work in the other 45 states, your personal online conduct may fall into a gray area that could be cause for your dismissal (or cause an employer not to hire you to begin with).
Even the states that do have legislation governing how much employers can snoop make certain exceptions “that allow employers to protect their legitimate business interests.” What exactly does this mean? That’s up for debate — and broad interpretation:
Almost all states’ social media password laws allow the employer access to an employee’s social media account as part of an investigation. There are few, if any, limits on what the investigation is about…
…Note the information does not actually have to be related to the investigation; the employer just has to “reasonably believe” it is. Courts would apply an objective “reasonable employer” standard, as opposed to a manager who just wants to stalk people. But as a practical matter, courts usually give employers wide discretion to investigate employee misconduct, and to define what constitutes misconduct.
– HR Examiner, How Employers Can Still See Employee Social Media Accounts
As Aliah Wright, author of A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn…and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites told American Express Open Forum, “employees can be held responsible for the things they publish online — even if they are at home on their own time and they think only their closest friends will see what they’ve published.”
So, in a world where the line between personal and professional identity online is already blurry, what can you do to protect yourself (and your career) from potential fallout?
Know your rights
If an employer (or potential employer) is asking you for personal online information you don’t feel comfortable providing, it’s within your rights to check your state laws. Some states prohibit employers for asking for especially sensitive information like your passwords or specific content, while others take a broader approach and also prohibit requests for your social media usernames
For information on your rights, check out this guide to current legislation by state to see which bills have been passed and which are under consideration.
Know your company’s policy
Some companies have specific social media policies that outline what’s considered appropriate and inappropriate social media behavior. Read up on what your company expects; if they see you as a brand ambassador even when you’re using a personal handle, you’ll need to take that into account.
In addition, if your company has a policy against using social media (or the Internet in general) for personal reasons during working hours, anything you do or say on company time and on company equipment may be liable to a search, so your best bet is playing it safe and holding off on the status updates until you get home.
Be smart about it
Avoid disparaging remarks about your company, boss or colleagues on social media. Double-check your privacy settings. Stop and think before you post that potentially compromising party pic.
Regardless of whether your employer can see what you’re doing online, everyone else can, and you owe it to yourself to present a personal brand that’s got it together.
Kelly Gurnett runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits and is the Editor-in-Chief of All Things Career. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.