You may be a social media junkie, hopping from one site to another. But if your employer suspects you check your friend's Facebook wall more than your work emails, he may be entitled to make you hand over your passwords.
Lawmakers across the country have begun weighing social media privacy laws that bar employers from hiring or firing employees for not surrendering an account username or password. Social media privacy laws have been introduced or are pending in 35 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, an organization that tracks legislation at the state level. Since the beginning of this year, five states - including Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Washington - have enacted legislation that prohibits employers from accessing social media passwords of employees.
But even as attempts to shield employees from intrusive employers grow, some laws feature exceptions that allow companies to snoop. The recently passed Utah law permits employers to request passwords for social media accounts such as Facebook or Twitter when a device is supplied or paid for in whole or in part by the company. An employer can also gain access to company-sponsored accounts managed by employees.
[See 20 Work-Life Balance Hacks.]
If your state has yet to address the issue, you could fall under an employer policy that grants wide authority in acquiring social media information. About 24 percent of businesses monitor social media information, according to a 2012 survey of 1,105 employees by the Chicago-based talent management software company SilkRoad. A 2011 survey by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics revealed that 42 percent of companies punish employees for behavior on social media websites, up from 24 percent in 2009. The survey received responses from 485 public and private companies as well as nonprofits.
If you're worried your tweets or Facebook posts may jeopardize your job, follow these steps:
1. Learn your company's policies. If your state lacks a social media privacy law, your employer may have one. The policy may not ban usage all together, but it may lay out explicit guidelines. Learn what you can and can't do, says Tyson Snow, an employment attorney at Pia Anderson Dorius Reynard & Moss, LLC in Salt Lake City. "With that knowledge you can tailor your actions accordingly," he says.
2. Learn the state law. If you work in a state that does have a social media privacy law, or is on the cusp of passing one, read up on it. You don't necessarily have to read the bland text of the law, but newspaper articles, magazines or online blogs, can help you understand what your state allows under the law, Snow says.
3. Go private on your profile. An inquisitive boss may be inclined to look up what you've been doing on Facebook or Twitter during office hours. Without privacy settings, he or she won't have to go through a potential legal fuss to wrangle your username and password. Snow recommends setting your privacy settings "to ensure that someone who is not your friend or follower or isn't a general member of the public doesn't have access to your content."
4. Pay attention to company culture. Working for a tech savvy company like Google or Microsoft, you may have free license to browse your social media pages during a shift, says Terri Thompson, an etiquette coach in Kentucky. If a policy is unclear, examining the actions of colleagues is one way to determine when visiting Facebook or Twitter is permissible. But Thompson says to lay the burden for spelling out the policy on the employer. "It needs to be communicated, maybe even as early as the interview process," she says.
5. Be mindful when using company gear. It's a great deal: Your company provides and picks up the tab for your laptop and iPhone. But if personal exchanges between co-workers or friends and family are edgy, if not outright inappropriate, then isolate your use to a personal device. "If you're an employee, and you don't want your employer to have access to any of your information, then don't access social media sites off your employer-provided computer or employer-provided cellphone," Snow says.
6. Self-monitor your time. The company you work for may have a lax policy, leaving you to either keep your roaming habits in check or letting them run amok. Thompson recommends brief exchanges and limiting usage to breaks and your lunch hour. "What can't and doesn't need to happen is being constantly on it," she says.
7. Gracefully guide the company account(s). Wanting to make a splash across several social media platforms, your company may want you to take the reins of its newly created accounts. Thompson recommends not revealing internal deliberations and straying away from posting anything text or images that can be construed as negative. "Be very, very careful that you're only ... putting the company in the most positive light possible," she says.
More From US News & World Report