CommunityPam's House Blend

Is it A-OK for potential employers to ask for your Facebook password? Some think so.

My reaction? Hell-to-the-NO. There are a couple of discussion questions here, but first read about this horror.

When Justin Bassett interviewed for a new job, he expected the usual questions about experience and references. So he was astonished when the interviewer asked for something else: his Facebook username and password.

Bassett, a New York City statistician, had just finished answering a few character questions when the interviewer turned to her computer to search for his Facebook page. But she couldn’t see his private profile. She turned back and asked him to hand over his login information.

Bassett refused and withdrew his application, saying he didn’t want to work for a company that would seek such personal information. But as the job market steadily improves, other job candidates are confronting the same question from prospective employers, and some of them cannot afford to say no.

In my day job capacity as a senior manager in an organization, I’m often asked about this by people — especially younger folks who live and breathe on social media and enter the job market — that there is no expectation of privacy, particularly on Facebook if you’ve not taken the time to place any privacy settings on your account. You have to take the time to put behind a wall any details about your private life and activities that you don’t want people to see. This seems like common sense, but I’ve actually heard people express that one’s Facebook account, if it is not work-related, is somehow by default off-limits to an employer or potential employer on principle. If someone can Google you in a casual search and up pops pics of you drunk and disorderly or sans clothes, all bets are off.

However, in the above situation there should be no expectation that you should hand over your password to anyone for any reason. And to refuse to do so should not be interpreted as “guilt” of anything other than your asserting your right to privacy — and that of your friends — in a non-work-related context.

So what do employment experts say about the inquiry that derailed Bassett’s candidacy for the job?

Federal law already provides some guidelines. Employers may use sites such as Twitter and Facebook for background checks if, for instance, the site is publicly accessible, if the employer doesn’t create an alias to get the information or if the employer doesn’t use the information gleaned in discriminatory ways.

[Employment attorney Amy] Semmel also pointed out that it’s not just a violation of the applicant’s privacy. “I’d argue that it poses a very serious concern” for every friend attached to that person.

Ultimately, the practice of even asking for your password violates the terms of service for Facebook. But those terms carry questionable legal weight, and experts say the legality of asking for such information remains fuzzy.

Entering a social networking site in violation of the terms of service, however, is regarded by the Department of Justice as a federal crime. During recent congressional testimony, though, the agency said such violations would not be prosecuted.

So it’s wrong for employers to do this, but there’s nothing stopping them from asking these horrendous invasive questions since there are no repercussions. This means pressure is on job-seekers, many desperate to re-enter the workforce if they are a member of the long-term unemployed population. The competition is stiff, and who knows how many people would voluntarily turn over a password just to get into the finalist pool. But there are other devious tactics beyond the brazen request for your password.

Companies that don’t ask for passwords have taken other steps — such as asking applicants to friend human resource managers or to log in to a company computer during an interview. Once employed, some workers have been required to sign non-disparagement agreements that ban them from talking negatively about an employer on social media.

Non-disparagement agreements are commonplace, and are not an unreasonable request to make. People should always steer clear of trashing your employer in the online realm. Avoiding blogging or posting about them at all is generally a good personal practice to follow if there is any question it could drop you on the unemployment line or place you in legal jeopardy. The law almost always falls on the side of the employer in this regard, so unless you’re independently wealthy, consider it foolhardy to test the precedents. Even using a pseudonym has gotten people in legal trouble if the wind of one’s identity gets back to an employer.

But back to Justin Bassett’s dilemma. He asked himself — “do I really want to work for any company/organization that engages in this sort of predatory behavior?” And he said no, but this development is frightening pressure on job seekers, and for all of us. If a person’s past the 99 weeks of unemployment and has to feed their family, you can see that this is powerful leverage these foul employers are exploiting — and jeopardizing everyone’s privacy on the backs of these desperate people.

All of this made for an interesting debate when I posted this on my Facebook page. See some of it below the fold.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding