Does My Boss Have the Right to Ask for My Password?

closeup of password box in...

An AOL Jobs reader asks:

Question... before I left for a one week vacation, I was told, not asked, by my manager via email that I need to give her my computer password. I told her that I can't do that because the employee handbook state that sharing user ID/password sharing is a major breach of company policy, and I may be dismissed from employment for sharing user ID/password information with anyone. When I told her about the employee handbook policy, she said that it's not her asking for it, that it's her boss asking. I never gave it to her, but I found out later that they got my password from the company's IT. I feel like I keep getting violated from my managers/ work place. Do I have any legal rights? Any advice?

So your boss's boss asked for your password before you went on vacation and you refused to give it? Frankly, you're lucky you weren't fired.Yes, it's a concern if your company handbook or policy says it's a firing offense to give out your password. But if your boss orders you to do it, then you can be fired for insubordination. What's an employee to do?

First of all, remember that in every state but Montana you're an at-will employee, meaning that you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. While you still can't be fired due to discrimination, taking Family and Medical Leave, making a worker's compensation claim, or objecting to something the company is doing that's illegal, this sounds like it doesn't fit into any protected category. That means you can be fired if you don't do what your boss tells you to do.

Here are some things that you might have done to protect yourself in this situation:

CYA: If the boss or the boss's boss demands your password, then send an email saying something like, "This will confirm that you have requested I provide you with my computer password before leaving for my vacation. It was my understanding that company policy number ___ forbids sharing of passwords, but I will comply with your request. Unless I hear otherwise from you within 24 hours, I will forward you my password." Then wait and see if they change their minds. Maybe even cc or bcc HR or whomever developed the anti-password-sharing policy. If they don't say otherwise, then send another email after the deadline saying something like, "Since I have not heard otherwise, I am complying with your instruction to provide my password. It is, "password." (And please don't tell me your password is really, "password.") Hopefully covering yourself with this will protect you. Print the emails before you leave so you have proof in case someone accuses you while you're gone.

Contact HR: If you don't think the CYA method protects you enough, then maybe you contact HR or whomever developed the policy and tell them, in writing, that this is what is being requested and ask them to confirm you have permission to comply. If it's okay, then comply. If it isn't okay, then maybe someone above you gets in trouble. Of course, you aren't legally protected against retaliation for reporting this, so use your judgment. Hopefully the company will protect you.

Was anyone treated differently?: If you are the only one who has been asked for a password before you left on vacation, then you have to ask yourself why. If only people of a particular race, sex, national origin or other protected category have been asked, it might be discrimination. If it's just you, then maybe you have access to something the boss needs while you're gone. On the other hand, maybe you're suspected of some wrongdoing. By refusing to give the password, you might be fueling suspicion. If you did do something wrong, then it might be time to start looking elsewhere during your vacation (or contacting a criminal defense attorney).

Is compliance illegal?: If you have the company's banking information, classified documents or other information that it would be illegal to grant access to, then you obviously have different concerns. If that's the case, you might contact the company's legal department or an employee-side attorney in your state to see what your responsibilities are.

It's really dangerous to disobey a direct order from your boss or your boss's boss. Unless complying is illegal, you're better off documenting the instruction and obeying.

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs.

Please note: Anything you write to me may be featured in one of my columns. I won't be able to respond individually to questions.
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