I have set my Facebook account to Fort Knox levels of privacy.  Not that I have anything salacious (or even interesting) to hide, but potential employers probably do not need to know how often I post about Glee.  Much to my alarm, however, such precautionary steps are no longer enough to fend off prying eyes: some employers have begun to ask job applicants for their personal Facebook login information as part of their vetting process.  This enables employers to see information that individuals have chosen to keep private from the public at large, and it allows them to scrutinize private social networking behavior before making employment decisions.

Some have suggested that such requests constitute an invasion of privacy, especially because they are made without any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.  On the one hand, this practice occurs most frequently in public agencies, especially those relating to law enforcement.  Arguably, there is a strong public interest underlying the background checks of 911 dispatchers and police officers.  However, does this mean that employers (often the government) should have a limitless right to undertake a fishing expedition into one’s private social media accounts?  Additionally, there is an increased risk that arbitrary factors, such as political beliefs and family life, will seep into hiring decisions.

Moreover, while applicants may voluntarily refuse to provide their passwords, many feel pressured to comply by today’s rough-and-tumble economy.  One job candidate noted that “If you need to put food on the table for your three kids, you can’t afford to stand up for your belief.”  Like a criminal defendant who refuses to testify, withholding login information gives the impression that you have something to hide – something more sinister than a few embarrassing posts featuring Barbra Streisand lyrics.

In response to this growing practice, two members of Congress have introduced a bill to ban requiring job applicants, employees or students to provide social networking information.  Under the proposed bill, the Social Networking Online Protection Act, employers may not use online content to “discriminate or deny employment to individuals, nor punish them for refusing to volunteer the information.”  This proposal highlights the need for Congress to further address the meaning of digital privacy in social media and to articulate the rights of Facebook users.  Should employers be allowed to demand login information as a condition of employment?  Should your interactions with friends on Facebook even be a factor in hiring decisions?

One of the most important questions is whether individuals should have any expectation of privacy in information they knowingly post on their profiles.  Even with high privacy settings, it seems unreasonable to expect that you have any right to privacy in something you post in a public forum.  When it comes to social networking websites, “online privacy” just may be a contradiction in terms.

– Joanna Collins

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4 Responses to Here’s to Hoping My Future Employers are Glee Fans

  1. Joanna Collins says:

    Katharine, thank you for bringing attention to another side effect of these practices. I had not thought of the impact on applicants’ friends – that is a really important point. When I send messages to my friends (as opposed to wall posts), I consider them as private as emails. I think there should be some boundaries to what employers can access, for both applicants and the people with whom they communicate.

  2. Katharine Skinner says:

    Joanna, I agree with your comment that users have some right to an expectation of privacy based on the existence of privacy-setting options. I think that is supported by the fact that Facebook released a statement expressing that they don’t condone this practice by employers, specifically because it undermines users’ privacy expectations. In the statement, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer said that Facebook works hard to allow users to control who sees their information, and not only should an applicant not be forced to share private information in order to get a job, but the applicant’s Facebook friends should not have to worry that private communications will be exposed to someone who they did not intend to share information with. I thought it was interesting to point out that the applicant is not the only one affected by this practice, but also the applicant’s Facebook friends.

  3. Joanna Collins says:

    That is a really great question. The only distinction I can think of between social media accounts and email accounts is that there is an expectation when you post something on Facebook that third parties will see it. As a result, there is a need for legislation that defines what (if any) privacy expectations you have in social media forums, whereas it probably goes without saying that your emails and bank records are private.

    However, even though there are reduced privacy expectations in social media accounts, the fact that there are privacy setting options suggests that users have some right to privacy. If employers are concerned about bad judgment in social media settings, one option is to have employees sign “non-disparagement agreements.” Under these contracts, employees agree not to post negative comments about the company. Otherwise, I do not see why a criminal background investigation and reference check are not sufficient.

  4. Shane Valenzi says:

    Interesting! I would be interested to know whether asking someone for their password to anything, under any circumstance, as part of a vetting process would be an invasion of privacy, without needing to specifically protect social networking sites. Certainly employers would not be permitted to demand your password to your online bank account, email address, etc, so how could they demand your password to a social networking site?