Can a California Church Monitor Its Employees’ Social Media Accounts?

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The use of social media by employees can be a significant source of stress for any employer. An employee’s online persona can reflect back upon the employer, and in some cases an employee may reveal information that the employer needs to keep confidential. Churches are not immune from these problems. An employee who uses social media in ways that are inconsistent with church values could hurt the church’s public image, raise questions about how it chooses its employees, and in rare cases could even get the church into legal trouble.

An employee’s privacy rights are at the core of California’s laws regarding employer monitoring of social media accounts. There are several rules that are worth keeping in mind:

  • Employers are mostly free to monitor their own systems. An employee who accesses social media accounts on a church-owned computer or phone generally doesn’t have a right to privacy in connection with that use. It’s a good idea to notify anyone who will be using church systems that their use may be monitored, to avoid confusion. If the use of church systems will also be recorded, employees may need to consent to that level of monitoring.
  • Employers can’t ask for access to their employees’ social media accounts as a condition of employment. Under California law an employer can’t ask or require their employees or job candidates to disclose passwords, access accounts, or divulge personal use of social media, email, or other online systems. There’s an exception for cases where an employee is under investigation for misconduct or legal infractions and such disclosure is reasonably believed to be relevant to the investigation.
  • An employee may volunteer information that would otherwise be protected. Information that is posted without restrictions on social media (that is, information that is visible to anyone) is not, by definition, subject to the restrictions above. The same is true of information posted in a way that voluntarily includes managers and other coworkers. For example, if an employee voluntarily “friends” a manager on Facebook the manager can act upon information the employee posts, even if the information is restricted to “friends.” Note, however, that requiring an employee to accept a friend request may be unlawful.

Be sure to talk to an attorney about the nuances of employee privacy before starting to systematically monitor employees’ online activities. The Church Law Center of California can help churches make sense of the different rules and establish policies that will protect churches from potential problems. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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