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I have to admit: I think Facebook is fabulous.
When I first joined Facebook the summer before my freshman year of college in 2005 — I went to Indiana University; go Hoosiers! — I was skeptical. But, of course, like everyone else on the planet, I came to enjoy using it as a way to connect with friends from high school who went to different colleges. When college ended and my friends left for jobs all across the country, I found that I enjoyed Facebook even more.
But, like anyone else, there are moments when the social network’s usage gives me pause.
Earlier this week, as I sipped my coffee one morning, a headline flashed across my Twitter feed from the Associated Press: “Employers ask job seekers for Facebook passwords.”
As someone writing in the HR and recruitment industry, I had been conditioned to hearing stories about how professionals in the space are using social networks, Facebook included, to screen and track potential job candidates. In fact, I even wrote an article earlier this month about a study that argued that, to some degree, tracking people’s behaviors on Facebook might be a sufficient measurement to predict future job performance.
But this one grabbed me strongly: employers REQUIRING that candidates hand over their Facebook passwords?! No way, Jose! That, to me, is a big no-no.
The AP story provided plenty of anecdotes of job candidates in this situation, including the story of Justin Bassett, a New York City statistician who had just finished answering a few interview questions when the interviewer went to a computer to view his Facebook profile.
Since Bassett’s profile was set to a private setting, the interviewer was unable to see it, so she “turned back and asked him to hand over his login information.”
“Bassett refused,” the AP article said, “and withdrew his application, saying he didn’t want to work for a company that would seek such personal information.”
Yet, as the job market is slow to improve, the article continued, many candidates are confronted with the same question from prospective employers but have no choice but to cooperate. Job prospects are so scarce that candidates will do whatever they can, in most instances, to get a job.
The AP article said questions have been raised about the legality of such a practice, but that most states have yet to attack the issue (proposed legislation in Illinois and Maryland would forbid public agencies from asking for access to social networks). Moreover, handing over your Facebook login information is against Facebook’s terms of service agreement, the article said, but that doesn’t necessarily make it illegal.
I find requiring that potential candidates hand over their login information — or have them “friend” a manager on Facebook, as some companies have done, so that person has access to view it — to be a tremendous misstep for any organization that allows such a practice.
Facebook and other social networks, like Twitter, are products that consumers use by choice. If their settings include only personal friends and family, that is their choice. If a recruiter is able to view a person’s profile publicly, go right ahead. But if that person has it set to private, then tough luck.
I understand why companies want to see candidates’ Facebook profiles: In some ways, as the researchers in my article pointed out, Facebook can be used to get a sense of a person’s personality as it might relate to that individual’s potential job performance. On the other hand, if that person so happens to display what an organization might deem “inappropriate” behavior on Facebook or other social networks, they can surely take that information into consideration when choosing between a few final candidates to fill a role.
But if that person’s profile is inaccessible? Or, if that person doesn’t have a Facebook profile altogether? That shouldn’t be counted against him — unless, of course, that person is applying for a job with, um, Facebook. That wouldn’t be a smart move.
Personality, I have both a personal Twitter and Facebook account. My Facebook account is set to a privacy setting that only allows people I “friend” or those in certain networks to view.
On Twitter, I keep my presence fairly open, letting whomever to follow what I so happen to be Tweeting at any given time (you’ll be disappointed, HR folks, if you come across me on Twitter, as most of my Tweets and the like are related to my unnerving obsession with Chicago’s sports teams and Indiana University basketball).
Now I absolutely agree that people who use these social networks should be privy to how they project themselves — for instance, I know not to use bad words on Facebook, because if I do, I’ll most certainty hear about it from my mom and grandma, both of whom I am “friends” with.
Job prospects aside, people should be conscious of how they project their social image. But, at the same time, if their social circle is one that chooses to relish in certain subcultures of music, movies and whatever that maybe isn’t always appropriate to be discussing in a professional environment in the eyes of a hiring manager, then that person shouldn’t be subject to scrutiny or not considered worthy of a job.
Or maybe they should be scrutinized, as long as such information is public. Obviously, there’s a lot of gray area both recruiters and the legal system may have to wade through to draw any reasonable conclusion.
My take is that organizations should stay away from any policy that asks job candidates to hand over Facebook login information. Recruiters can still use social networks as a casual screening vehicle, but only when candidates have allowed them to do so by making their profiles public.
Update: Friday, Doug Gross of CNN reached out to Facebook in response to the commotion over the AP story. What did Facebook say?
“In a nutshell?” Gross wrote. “Facebook says don’t do it unless you want to get sued.”
Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he earned his master’s of science degree in Dec. 2010. He is also a graduate of Indiana University Bloomington, earning a degree in American history in May 2009. Prior to joining MediaTec, Frank served as an editorial intern for Crain’s Chicago Business, covering commercial and residential real estate for Crain’s real estate spinoff, ChicagoRealEstateDaily. He also covered public finance and commercial banking while a reporter at Medill. Frank can be reached at fkalman@TalentMGT.com.