(MoneyWatch) As of January 1, 2013, California employers cannot ask or require that you divulge passwords and even user names for social media sites. California's Social Privacy Media Act prohibits...
... an employer from requiring or requesting an employee or applicant for employment to disclose a user name or password for the purpose of accessing personal social media, to access personal social media in the presence of the employer, or to divulge any personal social media. This bill would also prohibit an employer from discharging, disciplining, threatening to discharge or discipline, or otherwise retaliating against an employee or applicant for not complying with a request or demand by the employer that violates these provisions.
A similar bill (SB 1349) also would offer these protections to post-secondary students at both public and private institutions.
Such protections do not mean that you are now free to do whatever you want on the Internet and not have it affect your education or career. The public trail that leave online could still affect you. The California law doesn't prevent an employer from requesting your Facebook information as part of an investigation. Your 342 closest Facebook friends can still copy and paste what you wrote and email your boss, for instance. Your boss can still look at your LinkedIn page, and you can still get called to the carpet for listing your job title as "senior analyst" when in reality you are an "assistant analyst."
It also doesn't mean that those drunken pictures of you passed out by the toilet, so helpfully posted by your best friend, won't prejudice a hiring manager against you; it just means that in states where such laws exists, an employer can't ask you to hand over the key to your online life. If you use the same email address for Facebook that you do for your job applications, your page can be brought up instantly anyway -- even if you've taken care not to use your real name on Facebook.
Managers should take care to allow their employees to have lives outside of work. Managers should not friend people who report to them. Managers should not go digging around for online dirt. However, employees should take care to keep their online presence clean. Profiles should be locked carefully. If you would be embarrassed if your boss, your mother or your next door neighbor found out about what you said, you shouldn't write it on the Internet. Unless your actual job is underwear model, your Twitter profile picture should have you fully clothed. (And even if you are a model, full clothing is recommended.)
Before you click that "accept" button, you should think about if you really want someone to have access to so much of your personal life. That girl you knew in third grade -- are you sure she needs to be a Facebook friend? What about the coworker, with whom you go to lunch regularly? Can you be sure that you will never have a falling out and that she will never report to the boss that you were shopping when you said you had the flu?
The Internet is, for all intent and purposes, forever. State legislatures can make rules (although the California law is weak as it states explicitly that the labor commissioner isn't required to investigate or determine any violations of the act). And the nature of the eternal Internet is that you need to be careful what you post, regardless of the laws in your state. Be smart. Don't go searching for dirt on employees, but don't put any dirt out there for your employer to find, either.