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You're Identity: The Price of a Job?

Updated on July 1, 2014
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Introduction

For as long as there have been jobs, employers have made hiring decisions based on two basic considerations; your qualifications to do the job, and how much experience you have in doing this sort of work. However, with the advent of the Internet and social networking, coupled with a massive drive toward socialization of the workplace, companies have resorted to an intrusive process of scrutinizing candidates through the investigation of the candidate’s social media content.

This, in itself is shocking enough, but there’s even more. Some employers are now demanding that prospective employees surrender their personal username and passwords to their social networking membership accounts such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and LinkedIn. This would allow the employer full access to “spy” on every aspect of the candidate’s personal lifestyle in order to use such information in their decision making process. Although one might understand the objective of the employer; to assure the candidate is a “good fit” for the company’s social culture, this does present the two-sided problem of discrimination based on social class, and invasion of privacy.

The federal government should follow the lead of states like Maryland, Illinois, and California, and bar employers from forcing you to give up your social media content as part of their hiring process.

Intended Purpose of Social Media

When we consider social media, one of the important things to think about is the intended purpose of a social networking system. Social media has captured the imaginations of many people for both good and bad. Let us consider these uses for social media as intended purposes (the good) and unintended purposes (the bad). The intended purposes of social media can further be classified as either personal use, or commercial use.

For most of us, social media is a medium from which we are given the opportunity to meet new people, reconnect with old friends, and most of all, to share our thoughts, ideas and life experiences with our new-found “friends”.

On the other side of the intended purpose coin of social media is the commercial use by both the social media company and its clients, who are primarily advertisers promoting their products and services. This is done through the distribution of ad units, which are based on the analysis of user’s interests and profile data. This practice not only benefits the social media site owner, but also the advertisers themselves. Rajan Sodhi of BIG Marketing for Small Business tells us that “If the community finds value in our interactions, they are more likely to share that with others and help grow the community (Sodhi, 2011).” This reveals to us that the marketing purpose of social media is to use the community of members to help direct the marketing efforts of your company’s brand. Sodhi then tells us that “The community, in turn, will help generate sales indirectly through positive word of mouth (Sodhi, 2011).” This demonstrates a very clever and reasonable use of social media content to generate revenue for your company. It is very important to note that no private information is used in this process of demographic data aggregation.

Unintended Purpose of Social Media

As with most things in life, there is an opportunity cost to everything; including social media. Some of these are more obvious than others. When we think about negativity associated with social networking, we usually envision behaviors that might cause us to question the usefulness of social media in the first place. In an issue of the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Jacqueline Lipton identifies three similar behaviors with cyber-stalking being more threatening, and therefore, more likely to be addressed by legislation (Lipton, 2011). This not only points out the necessity to legislate social networking activities, but also indicates a major initiative to get the government involved in the process of creating legislation to regulate people’s behavior in social media environments.

On the other hand though, we find the widely overlooked invasive activity of employers using social media as a means of filtering job applicants. Although it is becoming much more popular, this activity is an unintended purpose of social media. The practice involves requiring job applicants to surrender their social media username and passwords as part of the job recruitment process. This is done so that the employer may freely peruse all of the applicant’s personal lifestyle activities for the purpose of using such content in the hiring decision process. The fact that social media companies such as Facebook forbid the sharing of one’s password is a clear statement that this activity is not an intended purpose of social media. In Section 4 item 8 of their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, Facebook clearly states “You will not share your password (or in the case of developers, your secret key), let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account (Facebook, 2012).” If this policy is violated Facebook could terminate your account. While employers who use this tactic justify it by claims that they need to protect the reputation of their company, I suspect (or at least hope) that most job applicants would rather give up a job opportunity than to give up their Facebook account.

Corporate Consequences

Despite the fact that some companies truly believe they are doing what is in their best interest, there are damaging affects to this tactic. A few of the dangers a company faces in using this tactic are identified in a Computerworld opinion article by Bart Perkins. These include a work culture where everyone is presumed “untrustworthy”, the loss of good talent to competitors, the potential for security violations, and “biased hiring decisions” based on factors that could inappropriately influence the decision making process (Perkins, 2012).” These, of course, are not an exhaustive list of risks that a company takes when they stoop to the depths of prying so deeply into your personal life, but it should be enough to make any hiring manager think twice about demanding personal passwords.

Discrimination

Quite possibly one of the glaring legal issues employers must consider when using your private social media content in a hiring decision is the thin ice of discrimination on which they tread. As pointed out in a Risk Management article by Morgan O’Rourke, “Questions about age, race, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, and so on cannot be asked in an interview, and a Facebook profile could inadvertently reveal such information (O'Rourke, 2012).” If a hiring manager had access to this kind of information, who’s to say that they would not use such criteria in their decision making process? Furthermore, discrimination is not limited to the items listed above. If you are denied employment because of social class, past behavioral activities, or even judgment of your opinions and ideas, this is technically discrimination. Unfortunately it is often overlooked and tolerated.

Precedence & Solution

This ever-growing unintended use of social networking web sites has finally become an issue of legislative action. Maryland in May of 2012, and Illinois in August of 2012, has already passed laws protecting the personal privacy of job applicants, by making it illegal for employers to require applicants to surrender their social networking passwords according to Sarah Jacobsson Purewal’s article on TechHive.com (Purewal, 2012). Purewal goes on to say that Michigan and Minnesota are also considering legislative action. The most comprehensive law passed regarding this issue was in September of 2012 when “California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law two privacy bills, Assembly Bill 1844 and Senate Bill 1349 (Purewal, 2012).” These laws affect not only employers, but universities as well.

One of the primary tenants of our legal system is the principle of legal precedence. With the passage of such laws in several states, precedence has already been established that clears the way for a national policy against employers using this type of “strong arm” tactic as a decision making criterion for employment. It is essential that the personal privacy of all people’s social media content be protected from invasion and exploitation. If it is locked (password protected), then it is locked for a reason, and nobody should have the right to force you to unlock your private life for their own gain. Furthermore, if it is important enough for California and other states to pass such laws, then it warrants the passage of such a law on a national scale.

Ways of Responding

There are two responses a prospective employee can offer when told they have to give up their social media password. Keep in mind that these responses might result in not getting the job, but then again, do you really want to work for an employer who doesn’t trust his/her employees? In an interview with Lisa Quast from Forbes.com Renee Jackson, a Labor & Employment Lawyer, at Nixon Peabody suggested that the applicant ask the interviewer “Is there something in particular you’re looking for that wasn’t on my résumé? I’m happy to discuss anything that relates to my qualifications and employment history with you while I’m here (Jackson, 2012).” This response clarifies to the interviewer that the only information legally necessary is information that relates to the applicant’s “qualifications and employment history”, while still conveying an attitude of openness and cooperation.

Another response that may be a bit more volatile, but to the point, is to enlighten the interviewer to the security risk of hiring a candidate who is so easily willing to surrender their personal and private (perhaps secret) information. In a May, 2012 article from Risk Management, Morgan O'Rourke alludes to the idea that if an applicant is willing to give up protected information in exchange for the possibility of a job, how much more would they, as an employee, be willing to give up company secrets to the competition in exchange for a huge cash reward (O'Rourke)?

Conclusion

When it’s all said and done, your personal information that you protect from prying eyes with a password is nobody else’s business. As stated at the beginning, the federal government should follow the lead of states like Maryland, Illinois, and California, and bar employers from forcing you to give up your social media content as part of their hiring process. The only thing an employer really needs to know about you is whether or not you have the ability to do the job, and how much experience you have doing that sort of work. Anything else they want to know, they can access through a simple Google search on your publically available information. Better yet, they should take the time to get to know you as a human being rather than a glob of big data.

Finally, it is not yet sure if, or when a national law will be passed to protect your personal and private information that you post on social media services. Until then, it is a good idea to “clean up” you social-digital life in such a way as to make yourself more appealing to employers. The rule of thumb that I always live by is to never post anything (public or private) that you would not want the whole world to see; including a perspective employer.

References

Facebook. (2012, December 11). Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from Facebook.com: http://www.facebook.com/legal/terms

Jackson, R. (2012, May 28). Social Media, Passwords, and the Hiring Process: Privacy and Other Legal Rights. (L. Quast, Interviewer) Forbes.com.

Lipton, J. D. (2011). Combating Cyber-Victimization. Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 26(2), 1103-1155.

O'Rourke, M. (2012, May). Keeping Big Brother at Bay. Risk Management (00355593), 59(4), 48.

Perkins, B. (2012, June 4). Social Media Passwords In Jeopardy. Computerworld, 46(11), 38.

Purewal, S. J. (2012, September 28). California bars employers from demanding employees' social media log-in info. Retrieved February 7, 2013, from TechHive.com: http://www.techhive.com/article/2010785/california-bars-employers-from-demanding-employees-social-media-log-in-info.html

Sodhi, R. (2011, March 1). Find the Purpose in Social Media Marketing. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from BIG Marketing for Small Business: http://www.bigmarketingsmallbusiness.com/2011/03/01/find-the-purpose-in-social-media-marketing/


© 2014 David Covey

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