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Honor the Social Media Privacy of Job Searchers

Background Checking on Social Media Websites


Employers Invade Privacy When They Request Social Media Website Passwords

Employers Invade Privacy When They Request Social Media Website Passwords

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Asking prospective employees for passwords to private accounts at Facebook and other social media is a line that employers should not cross. The right of an employee or prospective employee to privacy in their personal life outside of work is a hallmark of a respectful, trusting, employee-friendly workplace. And what employee, given a choice, would want to work in any other kind of workplace?

I’ve written several times over the past years that this is a bad practice.

But, seemingly, it is also becoming a regular practice of some employers. Enough so that Facebook Chief Privacy Officer, Erin Egan, has admonished Facebook users that Facebook’s user guidelines prohibit them from sharing their passwords. Egan says:

"As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. And as the friend of a user, you shouldn’t have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don’t know and didn’t intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job. That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password."

Background Checking Is a Must – Within Limits

In this day and age, with the ready access to social media information and anything that Google and other search sites can find about prospective employees, job searchers need to take care. Employers can and do access all public information about applicants to ensure the safety of their employees and to make sure the prospect fits the culture of their workplace.

Since employers do background check employees online in their social media profiles, the job searcher should maintain a positive social media profile that doesn’t give pause to prospective employers. In fact, some job searchers suspend their Facebook and other social media accounts during their job search to avoid any type of inspection from an employer.

Any employer who diligently checks backgrounds on potential employees should obtain the information necessary to determine the potential employee's capability and cultural fit. But, asking for passwords sounds a lot like showing up at an employee's home to check out the wallpaper and talking with the employee's neighbors.

Dangers to the Employer of Invading Prospective Employee Private Accounts

An employee's private life should be just that - private. Unless the employer knows that an employee is hurting the company or coworkers by his or her actions on social media, the employer should stay out of an employee’s private life. In the future employers are likely see discrimination suits over information obtained in social media whether it affected a hiring decision or not.

I can also foresee negligent hiring claims, if an employer had access to public information and failed to act on what the employer knew. In this litigious society, I can even foresee wrongful discharge suits from former employees who believe they were fired for their social media activity.

Regardless of potential legal issues, asking for a prospective employee’s passwords violates the compact that an employee’s work and private life should be separate. Employers should consider what an employee does in his or her life outside of work as private and confidential unless the actions impact work. Drug use is one example of a legitimate employer concern because drug use often impacts work and work schedules negatively.

In a second example, if an employee is posting negative comments about coworkers or the employer on Facebook or Twitter, the employee is likely violating his employer’s privacy and confidentiality policies.

Advice About Using Social Media Websites for Background Checking

Employers need to keep these things in mind as they check prospective employee backgrounds on Facebook and in other social media.

  • Do check the public profiles on sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. You owe diligence to the rest of your employees, so check every legal, available source of background information. Anything that a person posts publicly is fair game. Candidates want you to look at professional profiles on social media websites such as LinkedIn

  • Asking prospective employees for the passwords to the private accounts that they reserve for family and friends is over the top. Those accounts are private for a reason. In most cases, you really don’t even want to know, and asking may not be legal. Certainly, if the prospective employee provides you access, you are violating the terms of the social media site. You are also obtaining access to information about all of the candidate's friends and family which is a further violation of the candidate's privacy - and theirs.

  • Have a social media code of conduct or policy in place to cover such areas a coworker privacy, intellectual property, company confidentiality and so forth. In the same code of conduct, describe how managers and HR staff can utilize information on social media sites for making decisions about employment. (I have advised background checking for only your finalists and using social media sites to confirm your final selection, not to eliminate candidates along the way.)

  • Make sure your employees are trained in the company social media policy and that employees involved in hiring know what they can and cannot regard and check as part of a hiring decision. Facebook’s Egan says:

    “Employers also may not have the proper policies and training for reviewers to handle private information. If they don’t—and actually, even if they do—the employer may assume liability for the protection of the information they have seen or for knowing what responsibilities may arise based on different types of information (e.g. if the information suggests the commission of a crime).”

  • The employees whom you most want to join your company make decisions about you as an employer based on their interaction with you during each step of the hiring process. You do not earn points from your most qualified prospects when you subject them to unreasonable requests. Unreasonable requests include asking for Facebook and other social media personal passwords and asking for the social security number to apply for your job.

You want to background check candidates before you let them in your door. But, this newest trend in asking for access to private information and interactions on Facebook and other social media deserves a quick death.

Disclaimer – Please Note:

Susan Heathfield makes every effort to offer accurate, common-sense, ethical Human Resources management, employer, and workplace advice both on this website, and linked to from this website, but she is not an attorney, and the content on the site, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality, and is not to be construed as legal advice.

The site has a world-wide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country, so the site cannot be definitive on all of them for your workplace. When in doubt, always seek legal counsel or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct. The information on this site is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only.

Do You Research Candidates in Social Media?

  • Do you research candidates at social media websites? What are your top reasons for researching applicants online and on social media websites - or not? Readers have shared their opinions. Please share yours.
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