Be careful about the personal information and opinions you broadcast online, we are wisely and repeatedly told. Anyone from a prospective employer to an insurance company might be interested in details that you’ll regret divulging someday.
But employers cross a bright, hard line when they demand, as some do, that job applicants divulge their passwords to Facebook and other social media sites, or have them log on so the interviewer can scrutinize their likes and dislikes, their relationships, their photos, their friends’ personal information.
Of course, employers for years have scanned social media and other online sites for information about applicants, including the sometimes impolitic statements or opinions that Facebook users post in public forums or without creating privacy settings that keep their personal profiles privy only to their “friends.” Those postings are fair game. Employers have the same right to peruse publicly available information as anyone else does. Now some are going further, looking into details of applicants’ lives that they’ve divulged only to people they trust (even if those “friends” number 1,000 or more).
Although employers assert that their demand for passwords is perfectly legal, we have our doubts. Employers are not allowed to ask a wide range of personal questions about job applicants — their age, marital or family status, sexual orientation, religion and so forth — aspects of life that are commonly included in Facebook users’ personal profiles, posts or uploaded photos. Not to mention that access to the applicant’s list of friends allows them to view personal details on people who never gave their permission.
Facebook’s response — that its user agreement forbids the sharing or solicitation of passwords — isn’t much help. People who need to pay the rent are usually going to do what it takes to get the job, and the employer might not even be a Facebook subscriber, so it wouldn’t have to abide by the agreement.
Employers understandably want to minimize the risk of hiring someone who lacks ordinary discretion or honesty. But the easy availability of information online does not give them the right to digitally enter people’s homes and examine their possessions, family, friends and records. If this is acceptable, why not demand passwords to email accounts? People can be indiscreet in those as well.
Several states have moved to pass laws outlawing this practice. In California, Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has announced that he plans to introduce such legislation, and a U.S. senator from Connecticut is writing a similar bill at the federal level. Bans on these inquiries are a necessary response to an egregious intrusion.