Does Your Employer Want Your Facebook Password?

What happens when a potential employer accesses your personal information during an interview?  Will that information be used to your disadvantage?  Who will protect the rights of job seekers who do not have the knowledge or resources to defend themselves?

If you were cruising the Internet or Twitter today you might have come across a story about some potential employers asking people in interviews to pass over their Facebook password. Even though this request is in violation of the Facebook regulations, it seems that this scenario is taking place in some interviews.  Some companies have justified their requests by saying that they are in the security business and need to know who they are hiring.  Other executives simply ask the potential employee to accept their Friend request.

No doubt you wondered if this was a scam.  A quick look at the calendar confirmed that today isn’t April 1st.  There are already over 400 comments on the Globe and Mail page hosting this Associated Press piece.  It has certainly struck a nerve.

For those who might feel obliged to play along, there are many ways around this request:

– Say you don’t use Facebook, change your profile photo and fiddle with your name

– Give a password to a secondary and less personal account (According to section 4.0, you’re not supposed to have more than one account!)

– Agree to accept a friend request and then change the potential employer’s access to information only with no wall access.

– Say you no longer use Facebook and delete your account if you don’t care about it and really want the job.

Access to your account could reveal all kinds of personal information such as religious beliefs or sexual orientation that an employer does not have the right to know.  It is early days for these types of scenarios and there is no established case law precedent, but that will come.  Although it should be pointed out that content on your Facebook page can be pulled into a court case against your wishes – similar to how a diary is requested – if officials deem it appropriate.  Not providing access to your account does not mean that an employer cannot access the contents in order to make a point.  Interestingly, Facebook officials have refused to comment on this important story.  One would assume that this is bad public relations for them and their product and they hope the stories will just go away. (Update: On March 23rd, Facebook commented on this practice and warned that they might take legal action against employers asking for passwords.)

Yet one cannot help but feel that this is another example of how use of social media can be tricky.  It used to be that journalists would write about taking care to not post items on your Facebook page.  Any informed user would know that a company could not access your content unless an employee is linked to your page or you have your page set to public access.  Of course the more friends you have, and the less well you know them, there is more likelihood that someone might show your page to a prospective employer.

This story is a particular concern because it is coming out during a time when there is a difficult job market both in Canada and the United States.  The youngest and most inexperienced job applicants might feel compelled to follow along with the request. Or they might use some of the job application programmes that provide some companies with partial access to a person’s account information.

Back in the early 1990s I graduated from university in the middle of a recession.  If you hear journalists talk about this current recession as being the worst in 20 years they are referencing that slump in the early 90s.  At the time social media did not exist, so people had a much more superficial understanding of how that recession was playing out.  There is a lot that I could write about meager job prospects in Vancouver at the time, the cost of living and why I eventually left the region for five years in 1996; however, what stands out in my memory is an interview I had at a mining company in Vancouver.  The firm is located in the heart of downtown and took place in a cramped, wood paneled office in an historic building.

During the interview I wanted to ask questions that would give me a feeling for the position.  One question focussed on any extended health benefits that the firm might offer.  When they asked me why I was asking I must have told them that good coverage would be helpful to cover medication payments.  At the time I wasn’t taking any medication regularly.  I had a strong resume and should have been offered this humble position.  When the junior HR person explained to me why I didn’t get the job, I was aghast.  A senior company official felt that my health condition would get in the way of my ability to perform the duties of the job! Naturally I could have taken this company to task, but I didn’t.  I was 22 and inexperienced.  Indeed it could be argued that due to my lack of professional experience, I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have offered any personal information that might jeopardize my chances.

It didn’t really matter that I didn’t get this non-career path position. I was new to Vancouver and simply needed a job to pay the rent while I got on my feet.  To this day, however, the reason for their rejection still irritates me.  I wasn’t asked to do something that I didn’t have to do; however, I was asked an inappropriate question. I was asked to discuss my personal health situation.  Ultimately this information, which shouldn’t have been collected, was wrapped up into an assumption and used against me. While reading this story about Facebook passwords, my heart went out to all young adults looking for jobs who might feel pressured to do something they don’t have to do.  Additionally it reminds me that on a daily basis inexperienced junior and senior executives put applicants through the paces in inappropriate ways.  (I base this assessment on my own professional experience in a position that had an HR function.)

If you know a young adult looking for a job today, be their mentor and help to protect them from professional abuse – and for goodness sake tell them to not give up their Facebook password!

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