Forbes – Employers / Teachers Asking Applicants To Fork Over Social Media Passwords

10 Mar

Earlier this week, Forbes staff writer Kashmir Hill wrote a piece titled: Hey Teacher (And Employer), Leave Those Facebook Passwords Alone.

It’s about school administrators and employers demanding Facebook passwords from students/applicants in order to screen private conversations to see if they are involved in any risky activity…such as illegal activity, gang-related activity, and for schools, apparently, sexual activity.

All I can say is…what?

There are so many things here that I just don’t understand.  Are criminals dumb enough to post about illegal activity on Facebook?  Do schools really have any authority in whether or not minors are talking about sex?  Is it just because it’s “posted” that they think they have some right to it?

Here’s a quote from privacy attorney Behnam Dayanim (who might make a killing off this Forbes article…and links to his site like this one…you’re welcome, Dayanim):

“Legally, the employer has a strong position. You can say no, but there’s no element of duress there. If you don’t get the job, you’re no worse off than you were before,” says Dayanim. “That said, as a policy matter for the employers, I think it’s a bad idea.”

True enough.  Let’s be honest.  If I went to an interview and an employer asked for my Facebook password in order to “check me out” to make sure I was a good fit/low risk,  I wouldn’t want that job.  It would be the equivalent of an employer asking to come to my house and go through my closet to make sure I have the proper work attire.  Or go through my mail. Or vet my friends and family.  Maybe there are jobs where that is normal, but frankly, I don’t want them.

I think that vetting applicants to such a degree makes sense if, say, you are hiring them to be international spies.  Maybe. I mean, I’m just saying that there may be some extenuating circumstances. Law enforcement can demand passwords, obviously, if a crime is being investigated.  Or, to the point at the end of the article about college football players being required to friend their coaches (with their full aggreement in advance of being given their free tuition), that does makes some sense in the same way that giving a personal trainer access to your refrigerator can make sense. The coach is there to make sure you don’t screw up.  But for the majority of cases? No.

Dayanim, as an attorney, wanted some law on the subject to protect the rest of us.

“Congress should clarify that this is not permissible and protect companies from liability for what their employees say and do privately on this medium”

Sort of agree. I mean, yes, clarification around whether or not my Facebook profile is my property in a Search and Seizure kind of way would make  it easier to defend privacy violation claims in a courtroom (it would certainly benefit lawyers like Dayanim).  But it IS a bit  more complicated.

I am not a lawyer, but I can see how this could get sticky. Let’s assume that there was a law that made individuals entirely responsible for their profiles and protected companies from their employees’ behavior in social networks.  What about people who use social networking for business?  Are they not subject to any behavioral standards even if their conversations online are directly resulting in business for the company?  What about when someone’s profile gets hacked?  Is that individual entirely responsible for the content then?  A written bill would have to consider all the angles.  I’m not saying it would be impossible to write, but I would be wary of the result, and especially that it would really be in the best interest of “the people.”

Besides which, the fact is that social profiles aren’t in the control of an individual.  Not really.  I mean, it may be in our name and we can set passwords and restrictions on who is viewing our posts, but the data is physically not ours.  We surrender it when we sign up. It is now “out there”…living on some server.  It belongs to Facebook, or Google, etc. and those controlling entities can change privacy settings anytime they want.  So if Congress were to enact privacy laws on personal profiles, it would put a heap of responsibility on Facebook/Google to ensure security.  They are under plenty of heat for that already, and rather flailing IMO.  A law such as Dayanim suggests would inhibit development.  It might even make social media cost prohibitive in its entirety.  You can be sure that any company with a stake in social media will fight that. And so will their users who manage to maintain an unobjectionable presence on social sites.

The world is changing.  Just see Google’s new privacy laws.  We are becoming more connected, less private, and way less censored.  On Facebook, and other social networks, yes, there’s a great deal “too much information” shared about daily thoughts and activities–the emotional outburst, the political rant, the immature argument, the messy break up, etc. and so on.  But in my opinion, most of what people post doesn’t make them unhirable. Companies need to move forward with the time. Things are simply more expressive now!  Besides which, these kinds of conversations happen in the office too, around the water cooler (and if they don’t then your office is probably an oppressive place to work.)  My point? Don’t have a policy to not hire someone because they engage in human conversations.  You should be able to assess a culture fit in other ways, if that is what you are concerned about. If an individual’s online behavior is so bad they would make a bad employee, they probably showcase that behavior “in real life” too.  You should pick up on it without having to hack personal accounts.

In the end, the old rules still apply:

  • Employees shouldn’t post anything wildly inappropriate that could potentially get them fired or not hired.
  • Employers, follow the Golden Rule when it comes to how you judge and treat your staff.

Just my 2 cents.

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