Legislation introduced in Congress last week by Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) bans employers from requiring employees provide passwords to social networking sites as a condition of hiring or employment. This legislation, called the Social Networking Online Protection Act, or SNOPA, would also apply to colleges and schools. Maryland has already passed a similar bill at the state level and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
Despite how crazy it sounds, some employers are asking for passwords so they can log into social media accounts and poke around in the prospective employee’s private life. The weak economy and job market has created a situation where people are desperate for work and will comply with such requests. This is a coercive practice that takes advantage of vulnerable job seekers. Who’s doing this? Many university coaches are requiring this of their players. We had seen examples where schools require students who have allegedly made a negative comment about a teacher or talking about something inappropriate online to turn over log-in information. Police departments, correctional facilities, and public agencies have also asked for passwords. This is a serious privacy violation!
A recent study found that 75% of recruiters conduct online research of job applicants, which is much different than turning over passwords. Many social networking users, however, have utilized the privacy controls of the sites. This move is smart and can protect you from people accessing your private information. Remember, however, that anything in the public domain is searchable.
Employers have used other methods to gain access to your accounts other than asking for passwords. The hiring manager may require the applicant to sign into their accounts during the interview or friend the potential employer.
This practice removes the boundary between our private and personal lives. We still need to have a boundary there, even in this world of oversharing. Would you allow a potential employer to read your personal mail, look at your photo albums, bug your phones, or visit your home? We should be allowed some expectation of privacy because our private behavior does not necessarily impact our professional lives. A social drinker will likely not be drinking on the job. Knowledge of some of the information available on these sites (e.g., age, sexual orientation, religion) could open up the potential employer to discrimination lawsuits if the candidate is not selected. These employers have access to not only your wall, photos, and information, but also private Facebook messages. This practice also gives the employer access to friends’ profiles, violating their privacy as well. People who access your account may also assume your identity for nefarious purposes.
The terms of service for all social networking sites ask users to safeguard their passwords. Facebook and Linkedin specifically request that you do not allow anyone to access your account and keep your password confidential.
At the same time, it is wise to consider the content that you are posting on your sites and whether you are creating a favorable image of yourself. Look at your profiles objectively. What do they say about you? If it’s not a good representation of the person you believe you are, clean them up. Doublecheck all your privacy settings and make sure they are appropriate for you.