Saturday, March 31, 2012

Socially Unacceptable

So the other day I'm flipping through some NPR stories and come across one titled, 'Employers Ask Job Seekers For Facebook Passwords'. Unlike some stories where the sensational headline turns out to be, well . . . sensational, this one was dead on. Apparently requests for access to your Facebook account by prospective employers have become more common lately, especially, though not exclusively, in law enforcement areas.

This floored me! I tried to imagine the cojones it would take for an interviewer to ask for your ID and password. This goes way beyond just poking around your public profile, and while I'm not thrilled at that, at least it is your PUBLIC social life. But this is actually asking to be given full access to poke around in your private life. It's understandable that an employer would want to know as much about you as they could, but there are limits. Or at least there should be! In fact there are questions that are illegal to ask directly, for general employment, such as national origin, marital status, religion or sexual orientation. Now consider how many of those off-limits questions would be quickly answered with only a few minutes perusal of your private social profile? Most, if not all of them, right?

Now some places apparently go for the softer approach and just ask you to login for them, during the interview. Sort of like a neighbor asking to be let into your house and then wandering around to look through your drawers, cabinets and receipts. The other 'soft' approach is to ask you to 'Friend' an HR account. Now this sounds a little less invasive at first, but not if you really think about it. After all, even those who have locked down their privacy settings usually continue to allow their Friends to have access to their profiles. So, in effect they get pretty much the same access.

I read several articles on this subject and none of them noted a very insidious side to this. Consider this, if they log in as you, they also get pretty much full access to ALL your online friends' info as well. So if you give up your login, for all functional purposes you are also giving up your friends' at the same time. Imagine if a friend of yours works at this company and clued you in about the open position. When you give HR your login, you have now allowed them to poke through your friend's profile without his consent or even knowledge. Even if you only Friend HR, they will still have significant access to the private info on all of your friends.

So what is the possible justification for this invasion of privacy? Twenty years ago employers got along just fine with the usual sources of info such as personal & professional references, previous employer contacts and your interview. So it's not as if they have less info than before, and in fact, with public online sources they have far more info than they ever had in the past. So what gives them any right to ask for still more? What's next, the keys to my apartment? Password to my email accounts? A tap on my phone calls? We are applying for a job, not indentured servitude! This is obviously one of those times when technology has outpaced the law. Since it's not technically illegal, companies will ask. And while it may be considered voluntary, in a tight job market, is it . . . really? If you've been out of work for months, or even longer, can you afford to stand on principle and say no? Sure, they may tell you that refusing won't affect your chances, but can you be sure?

This is a clear overreach by employers, in my opinion. Because there is more info out there than in the past, some companies feel justified in trying to get at it, even if it supposed to be private. And that's why we have privacy protections. We need them to limit how deeply an employer can dig and restricts information that the employer has no right or need to know. Incidentally, Democrats in the House of Representatives attempted to add a provision to a bill last week that would have let the FCC restrict employers from asking for this sort of access. It was soundly defeated. So, at least for now, we are left to ponder this very disturbing trend.


  1. i just read this article about people being fired for not providing their password. the article says that it has become common enough that facebook has a policy about it now.

  2. Instead of useless outrage directed at some or all employers in general, maybe the question that should be asked is "Do you have the cojones to do the right thing and just say no?" if confronted with this type of question. Then just let natural selection take care of the remaining employer/idiot pairings.



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