As if you needed one more example of how the line between your personal and professional life has all but vanished. Some private and public sector employers are now requiring applicants to hand over their Facebook passwords or force employees to ‘friend’ their manager. It’s no secret that many employers Google potential employees and surf through any public photos or posts by the applicant to spot any red flags, but turning over passwords to social media accounts is raising more than a few eyebrows.
Last week, MSNBC reported that the Department of Corrections for the state of Maryland was making applicants click through their social media accounts while the interviewer stood over the applicant’s shoulder. Previously, applicants had to hand over their passwords but the practice was dropped after complaints were raised to the ACLU. But this is not stopping other employers, private and public, from demanding usernames and passwords. According to employment lawyers, there is nothing legally preventing employers from asking for passwords or access to social media accounts, although employees and applicants are under no obligation to hand it over. However, Facebook is now weighing in. Erin Egan, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, reminded employers last week that sharing passwords was against Facebook’s policy and exposes the employer requesting the information to unanticipated liability. This week, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have also requested the Department of Justice to launch an investigation.
Why the Facebook inspection in the first place? In the case of Maryland’s Department of Corrections, the rationale seemed straightforward: the agency wanted to weed out potential applicants with gang affiliations. But what else could they be looking for? Why would private employers want access to your online pictures and posts? Sure, they may check to see how many pictures you have looking glassy-eyed or posing next to your bong, but is it something more subtle? US employers are barred from asking applicants certain questions about their race, sexual orientation, age, religion, marital status, etc., yet how much of that information can be derived from your social media accounts? Good luck trying to prove discrimination if you didn’t get the job.
Despite Facebook’s warning over sharing passwords, there is still nothing from preventing employers from standing over your shoulder, as in the case of the Maryland Department of Corrections, or forcing you to ‘friend’ your boss so your manager has a window into your personal life (what’s left of it at least). Think of how difficult this is to manage considering others can tag you in content without your consent.
Although the focus has been on Facebook, what about other social media? What happens when your boss follows you on Twitter, starts asking you why you keep updating your profile on LinkedIn, or decides to monitor your movements on Foursquare?
Opting out of social media isn’t the preferred option for most people. I have a family friend that has a fake Facebook profile that is professional looking and plain enough for a Quaker but another for close, trusted contacts. This seems a little hard to manage for me. So, what can you do? First, decide if you would want to work for an employer that wants that much access to your life. Employers may drop the social media checks as public pressure mounts or legislation is adopted, but in the meantime, consult an attorney that specializes in privacy law if you are uncomfortable with handing over your personal information. Chances are, privacy lawyers will be busy this year.