HR Management & Compliance

Washington state latest to pass social media privacy law

Employers in Washington state should take note of a new law prohibiting them from requiring current or prospective employees to provide access to their social media accounts.

Washington is the eighth state to pass such a law, and the National Conference of State Legislatures says 33 states are considering similar bills this year. The federal government may soon follow suit. A bipartisan group of representatives recently introduced a similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Under the Washington state law, which goes into effect July 28, employers are prohibited from:

  • Requesting or requiring employees or applicants to disclose login information for their personal social networking accounts;
  • Requesting or requiring employees or applicants to access their personal social networking accounts in the employer’s presence in a way that allows the employer to observe the account’s contents, a practice known as “shoulder surfing”;
  • Compelling or coercing employees or applicants to add an individual (including the employer) to the list of contacts associated with their personal social networking accounts;
  • Requesting, requiring, or causing employees or applicants to change the account settings that affect a third party’s ability to view the account’s contents; and
  • Taking adverse action against employees or applicants because they refuse to allow access to their accounts.

Exceptions and penalties

The law includes exceptions for employer investigations into work-related employee misconduct, efforts to comply with laws and regulations, and potential leaks of confidential information or intellectual property. But employer requests for information are just requests. The law doesn’t obligate employees to divulge the information, even in those limited circumstances.

Aggrieved employees and applicants must report violations to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I). They may file a civil lawsuit against the employer. An employer’s first violation results in a fine of up to $1,000. Subsequent violations may result in fines up to $5,000.

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