With the prevalence of social media and the potential embarrassing or unprofessional revelations that come with its use, the law has evolved to address the issues of a worker’s right (if any) to keep personal information private from their employer. In keeping with these times, Tennessee has recently passed into law the Employee Online Privacy Act of 2014. Both employers and employees should be aware of this Act since it directly addresses an employer’s right to access an employee’s social media or personal Internet accounts in the workplace. In short the Act prohibits an employer from:
- Requesting or requiring an applicant or employee to reveal their social media or other Internet passwords
- Requesting or requiring an employee to “friend” or otherwise make the employer a contact on social media or personal Internet accounts
- Requesting or requiring an employee to allow the employer to “shoulder surf,” or stand behind the employee and direct or observe the employee while the employee accesses his or her personal accounts.
However, the Act does not prohibit an employer from restricting an employee’s access to websites or Internet accounts while using the employer’s equipment or devices. Similarly, the Act does not prohibit an employer from disciplining or even firing an employee from transferring confidential employer information to the employee’s personal accounts. An employer is also allowed to request a password for equipment owned or provided by the employer and monitor, block or access data stored on a device owned or provided by the employer.
Additionally and significantly, the Act allows an employer to require access to content or information stored on a personal Internet account when the employer has specific information that such content relates to the subject of a workplace investigation. This would appear to come into play when a discrimination claim or other unlawful activity is being investigated and the employer has good reason to believe information about the unlawful act is contained in an employee’s personal Internet account.
This Act goes into effect on January 1, 2015. Violations of the Act will be pursued by the Attorney General and will result in a penalty on the employer of $1000 per violation.
If you are an employer and believe that you have need to access an applicant’s or employee’s personal Internet accounts, proceed with caution. Before taking any action, you are best served by consulting an experienced employment law attorney before making a costly error. An attorney can help determine whether there may be an exception to the Act that could apply to your situation.
If you are an employee, remember that come the beginning of the year, you will almost assuredly not have to supply passwords or other access to your personal Internet accounts to potential or current employers and, crucially, you cannot be penalized by the employer for failing to do so. If you are pressured to do so anyway, stop and consult an attorney. We can help provide necessary advice and assistance to protect your rights.
As always, the Law Offices of Jill Jensen Thrash in Chattanooga, Tennessee is here to help. If you have any questions about how this Act will affect you or your business please give us a call. We are experienced in handling employment law issues of all kinds and are here to serve you.