New Michigan law protects employees’ Internet privacy rights

For many people, social media and email are vital ways of gathering new information and connecting with friends and family. For good reason, most workers want to keep their online activities private from their employers. Just as they wouldn't want their bosses showing up unannounced to happy hour or reading a letter from their mother, they don't want their employers to have unfettered access to their Facebook, Twitter or email accounts, either.

Some employers, on the other hand, like to keep track of their employees' online activities. They hope that by monitoring their employees' online activities, they can control what their employees say and do online, thereby protecting the business's image.

Michigan employees have balked at this kind of intrusion into online privacy. In response, state lawmakers enacted a law prohibiting employers in Michigan from requiring employees or job applicants to share access to their personal Internet accounts as a condition of employment. Employers who violate this law can be charged with a misdemeanor. In addition, employers who take retaliatory action against employees who refuse to grant access to their Internet account can be held liable in wrongful termination lawsuits or other employment law actions.

Not all access prohibited

The law does not give employees complete social media freedom, however. The law enumerates a number of situations in which employees are required to share information. For example, employers are allowed to access communications devices that they pay for. In addition, employers can also access Internet accounts that are used to further business purposes or that were obtained as part of the employment relationship.

Furthermore, in some circumstances, employers are allowed to access Internet accounts during the course of disciplinary proceedings. Employers are allowed to check employees' accounts to see if they have violated laws or misconduct rules. Employers are also allowed to access employees' accounts when there is reason to believe that an unauthorized transfer of confidential or propriety information has been made.

Employers are also allowed to review or access data that pass through the employer's network or that are stored on a device that the employer has paid for.

Working with an employment law attorney

Michigan employees who are asked to share personal online information would be wise to consult with an experienced employment law attorney before turning anything over to their employers.

Similarly, employees who are terminated as a result of their online activities should talk with an employment law lawyer who can determine whether their rights have been violated. If so, there may be legal recourse to hold the employer accountable.