Why Asking For A Job Applicant’s Facebook Password Is Fair Game

Depending on the job, access to the social media communications of a potential hire may be in your company's best interest

On Your Business, I pointed to an example where I believe a request for a Facebook password as part of the hiring process is entirely reasonable: the childcare industry. If I am running a school or a day care center, the time to find out that a teacher or other worker has a record of inappropriate social media communication with minors, or worse, a history of or predilection for sexual relationships with students, is during the hiring process—as New York City is finding out the hard way, with an epidemic of public school employees being revealed to have had such relationships with students. To me, such a request falls into the same category of checking the backgrounds of potential employees as the common (also still debated) practice of asking job applicants to agree to a credit check, especially for jobs that will require them to handle money, keep the books or carry out other fiscal duties on behalf of a company. In these and other cases, safety and security issues, and the legal liability that they create for business owners if they are not adequately addressed during the hiring process, outweigh the job applicant’s expectation of privacy when it comes to their social media activities.

Speaking of which, I can still hear people screaming (actually tweeting and retweeting), that an employer asking for your Facebook password is a horrible invasion of privacy. Well, for those of you who still believe in Santa Claus, I strongly recommend that you read The Filter Bubble: What The Internet is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser (Penguin Press). Or you can just take my advice and let go of the illusion of privacy on social media. The courts are conflicted, at best, on whether we as social media users have a right to an expectation of privacy, with many cases being decided against such expectations. The last place you want to share anything that is truly private is on your Facebook page or any other social media platform. Better to think of social media as the ultimate “Front Street.” No matter what their privacy policies are (which they can change at will without your permission) and what privacy tools and settings they offer (which they also change whenever it suits their business models), always assume that posting on Facebook is just the ticking time-bomb version of you shouting your private business from the middle of Times Square—on steroids.

To paraphrase a quote shared in The Filter Bubble, if you’re getting something for free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Social media is designed for the information shared on it to be searched and shared—and mined for profit. The business model is the very antithesis of the expectation of privacy. To ignore that reality is to have blind faith in Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. operating in your best interests above all else, at all times. (I don’t.)

Whether you agree with me or not about a whether a potential employer asking you for your Facebook password is fair game, I hope you’ll take my advice: When considering what to share via social media, don’t think business vs. personal. Think public vs. private. And if something is truly private, do not share it on social media out of a misplaced faith in the expectation of privacy.

This debate is far from over, and efforts to update existing, but woefully outdated, privacy laws—not to mention the hiring practices of companies—to catch up with the realities of social media will definitely continue. I’d like to know where you stand, both as entrepreneurs and business owners, as well as potential job applicants. And I’d especially like to hear from human resources and recruiting experts. How far is too far when it comes to a potential employer investigating the social media activity of a job applicant?

Watch my appearance on MSNBC’s Your Business below:

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  • plus de facebook like

    Its like you read my mind! You appear to grasp a lot about this, such as you wrote the ebook in it or something. I think that you just can do with a few percent to pressure the message house a bit, however instead of that, this is wonderful blog. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

  • Sylvia Burley

    Although I was all set to disagree, you made some excellent points. I still disagree with the premise and don’t know what employers can find on facebook they can’t find in a professional background check. I also disagree with the premise of doing credit checks. What if an illness, divorce, or job loss affected my finances? None of us is immune to the hazards of life. You did offer excellent info re: putting personal info in social media sites, something more ppl should think long and hard about. I still see “I’m going on vacation” posts, inappropriate pics, and personal detailed info. being posted. Ppl have gotten too comfortable.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      Sylvia, I agree with you. We have to be more responsible about balancing our impulse to share with our need to protect our own privacy, instead of trusting solely on companies like Facebook, the courts, or legislators to do it for us. Thanks for weighing in!

  • nhodge@spedient.com

    Hi Alfred!

    As an employer who hires individuals on a permanent and contract basis to work on Federal engagements, I frequently have contracts that require top secret clearances and all levels of security screening. With that said, I would never (unless my government customer required me to) ask a prospective employee for their Facebook passwords. My reasoning is rather simple-I think it is unnecessary and would encourage candidates to hide social media information that we as employers can discreetly access currently due to careless practices. If it becomes a standard or even a common practice to request passwords, it will become ineffective.

    I happen to be pretty good at finding information and hidden details. I have had repairmen come to my home and I could tell you what church they attended and when their parents divorced before they even set foot in my home. Many local municipalities offer free access to civil and criminal dockets going back many decades. You can also find out a lot from Facebook accounts that aren’t on lockdown. But I know for a fact, if employers like me start to ask for passwords, those who really have something to hide will find a better way to do it. It would take very little effort to “scrub” the account that your employer has access to while maintaing a separate account with a different profile name and image that actually contains the real content. I have friends on Facebook right now whose children have done that very thing to hide their “real” pages from the parents. Same thing applies to candidate applying for a job working with children. Much easier to find out info when they don’t know you are watching.

    I agree with you Alfred that NOTHING on social media or the internet in general is truly private. I like to say, “Write it-regret it, say it-forget it.” Anything you input in electronic form and submit into the world wide web is forever memorialized. People should know that and proceed accordingly. You need to post comments on social media with the understanding that someone, somewhere is definitely wathching.

    I would personally have a problem giving my password. I am very conscious about what I post on Facebook, but I prefer not to share my political positions and my sometimes opnionated views with everyone. I have that right. That alone would make me say no.

    Great to be back on this site!

    • nhodge@spedient.com

      Wow I really did create paragraphs…not sure what happend to them.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      As usual, you have totally taken me to school. Thank you for sharing; hopefully others will read your comment and wise-up about taking their privacy seriously on social media. Thanks, as always, for sharing your wisdom and expertise!

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  • Andy Greider

    While I understand there is valuable information to be potentially gained (and that should be found) in situations such as childcare/teaching, I am not sure, as you already point out, that this information is not already publicly accessible if you know how to look.

    Instead of “red flagging” the idea you are seeking out this information on a FB page, why wouldn’t you use other methods – such as biometrics companies – to weed out the bad apples? We just did an interview which will post soon with Jim Aden from Boston Biometrics for Relax HR, our new radio show, where he describes being able to eliminate all kinds of negative types of influences from your job market while finding the right matches for the actual position. I’ll post back here with a link once we have the blog done and the show/interview posted, in case you or your readers would be interested in knowing more.

    This was an excellent article and well worth the read. Thanks so much – look forward to hearing more from you.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      Andy; The likelihood is that biometrics would be used as an additional screening tool, for those businesses that can afford it, not a replacement for other methods of looking into the backgrounds of employees. I look forward to you sharing your links to the blog and radio show interview, so that I and other readers of this post can learn more. Thanks for sharing!

  • Notch

    You made a good point: this debate is not over. Even this article describing your personal position on the matter presents massive conflicts.

    You write that you would refuse the demand to reveal your private account info from a prospective employer, for good reason. Then you demand, in the role of employer, to be given complete access to a job candidate’s personal account info, lauding the benefits of invading their notion of privacy. All while insisting that nobody in their right mind should ever post anything personal in their personal accounts, lest they suffer the type of institutionalized privacy invasion you just described. Something that you would refuse to comply with yet demand of others.

    Personally, I can compare this situation to using torture to get information from a suspect. It sure does sound good and simple, to just beat the guy until he tells you what you want to know. But you would have committed a despicable act, and the ill-gotten information is just not reliable. And here’s the worst part: You spend your resources on this sham instead of practicing due diligence and doing the hard work necessary to actually get the job done.

    Better to stay vigilant, and keep your humanity, than succumb to madness.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      Notch; I acknowledge the inherent conflicts between how I feel about this issue as a potential job applicant and how I’d feel about it as an employer, depending on the business I was in and the position I was looking to fill. However, I only stated that an employer should be allowed to ask, not that the applicant should be required (much less beat up and tortured) to consent. An employer has to decide if it’s worth it to ask (most won’t and, as you and others on this post have pointed out, will use other methods). By the same token, an applicant has to decide if he or she wants the job enough consent; again, most–including me–won’t. Otherwise, you make some excellent points. Thanks for weighing in!

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  • Bruce

    I agree that you should never say anything on social media that you wouldn’t say in a crowded room, and I often caution younger folks that the internet does not exist in a vacuum.

    But let me ask you this…since you seem to think asking potential applicants is fair game…would you do the same to current employees? Also, with the obvious exception of illegal activity, racist and bigoted views (and whatever society deems as immoral), what specifically are you looking for? Or is it more of a “I’ll know it when I see it” approach?

  • Janice

    I couldn’t imagine wanting any position enough to hand over my password(s) to any of my personal accounts. If an employer can’t find the information in a background check then it doesn’t need to be found.

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