Must job hunters reveal Facebook password?

The Washington state Legislature is considering a bill to prohibit companies from asking job applicants for passwords to social-networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Debates over social media in the workplace are taking place across the country.

By Brian M. Rosenthal, Seattle Times Olympia bureau

State Sen. Steve Hobbs
State Sen. Steve Hobbs

OLYMPIA — Anyone who has hunted for a job recently has heard the warning: Don’t let your Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts ruin your chances with a potential boss.

The sites are now commonly incorporated into the job-application process by HR departments searching for pictures, status updates and messages that may expose candidates’ true colors — or momentary lack of judgment.

But how much leeway should companies have to examine online photos and posts purposely hidden from general public view?

The Legislature may soon attempt to answer that question, one of many that employers and employees are grappling with as social media blurslong-sacred lines between personal and professional life.

“It’s a privacy issue,” state Sen. Steve Hobbs said. “Companies want to know who they’re hiring, but applicants have a right to express themselves on these sites.”

Hobbs is the prime sponsor of a bill to prohibit companies from directly or indirectly demanding a password to a social-networking site as a condition of hiring or continued employment. Senate Bill 5211 would not bar companies from looking at publicly available pages.

Six states have approved similar laws in response to complaints, most recently in California. Congress is also weighing its own version.

Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said he doesn’t know how much of an issue it really is here, but he says lawmakers should “nip this in the bud.”

The bill’s prospects are unclear.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Washington Business said the group has not taken a position. But the state director for the National Federation of Independent Business said his group is concerned that the way the bill is worded could end up affecting managers’ ability to monitor company social-media pages run by employees.

The California bill passed last year with little opposition, said sponsor Nora Campos, a San Jose Democrat and Assembly speaker pro tempore.

Few opponents have materialized on the national level either, officials said.

“I think a lot of people agree that this seems intrusive and unwarranted,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a former attorney general who said he introduced the Senate bill after hearing complaints.

Privacy concerns are not the only social-media issues being debated across the country — so, too, are questions about worker rights.

In December, the National Labor Relations Board declared in response to a lawsuit filed in New York state that workers have a right to discuss work conditions with their colleagues on social-media pages, just as they would in the break room.

The board found that such communication is protected under the National Labor Relations Act, which allows for workplace organizing.

“Employees have always had the right to discuss working conditions at the workplace,” said Ron Hooks, the Seattle-based regional director of the NLRB. “We are applying the law to these new technologies.”

New Jersey human-rights attorney Lewis Maltby said the impact of the NLRB decision was limited because it applied only to discussions between employees about work.

Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, said bosses have essentially unchecked power and are using it inappropriately because they don’t understand social media and are afraid of it.

Bills like Hobbs’ are needed, he said, because companies are arbitrarily weeding out job applicants based on social-media posts that have nothing to do with the candidate’s ability to do the job.

“Unfortunately, at this time my advice is, don’t say anything that anybody could possibly disagree with,” he said. “You have to choose between your right to express yourself and your ability to get a job. You can’t have both.”

Patrick Connor, the National Federation of Independent Business state director, agreed there should be some limits on what candidates must provide during the job-application process. He said more discussions are needed about how to maintain a clear line between private social-networking pages and pages that affect the company.

Ryan Calo couldn’t agree more.

Calo, a University of Washington law professor, said that social-media-related tension between employees and bosses is likely to grow because the stakes are higher than in the past.

“Employees have always had the ability to embarrass the company,” he said. “But most of them have had limited access to public channels of communication.”