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This Is Business; Stay the Hell Out of Your Candidates’ Personal Lives

by
Carol Schultz
Mar 27, 2012, 5:00 am ET

I read an article last week about job candidates being asked for their Facebook passwords so that potential employers can examine their personal activity. It also covers law enforcement agencies making similar demands of their applicants. So at the risk of getting tarred and feathered, here I go.

When did companies decide that it’s okay to invade someone’s privacy? Some candidates said that they feel like they have to say yes to this “request” since they need the work. One individual in the article referred to it as “coercion.”

Any company attempting to take advantage of candidates in this way should be ashamed. This wouldn’t have been considered even five years ago. Just because it has gotten easy to check someone’s social activity doesn’t make it appropriate to ask them for their password or that they “friend” you so you can spy on them. I can almost hear the requester respond, upon asking how s/he would feel if they would feel if asked this, “I don’t have anything to hide.” But that’s not the point. 

Anyone who’s smart enough knows not to post anything that may jeopardize his or her future employment. Why do you think so many people are removing photos, etc., from their Facebook profiles prior to the mandatory Timeline changes? Once that happens, there will be no way to remove past items.

I wouldn’t post anything on my Facebook profile that I wouldn’t want my 90-year-old parents to see, yet my profile is private and viewable only by my “friends.” I have no interest in having people I don’t know snooping around my personal life. So what good would it do for a potential employer to see it? It’s only going to show them that I love animals and periodically share an article or video of interest. I rarely even comment on other people’s posts because I have neither the time nor inclination.

In addition, I don’t have many “friends” on Facebook. The only people I’m connected with are folks from high school, college, or who are in my life. Remember this, folks. Less is more. Call me a dinosaur, but I still prefer to communicate the old fashioned way … orally.

I believe companies are asking candidates for this information to exclude, rather than include, them from consideration. I expect this conversation will gain momentum as more people feel encroached upon in this way. I liken this behavior to a recruiter excluding a candidate because of age. Maybe you’re thinking it’s illegal to do this, but it’s very easy for companies to do (I’m not saying it’s nice) and not get caught, so let it go. It happens a lot.

One candidate interviewed for the article had just finished answering questions, when the interviewer turned to her computer to find his Facebook profile and asked him to provide his login/password. He ended the interview immediately. Good for him. It wasn’t an issue of needing to hide anything. Rather, it was about not wanting anything to do with a company who would make this request. I don’t even want to get in to the fact that the interviewer began to do a search while he was in the room.

In another case a security guard for the Maryland Department of Public Safety who had taken a leave of absence after the death of his mother was asked for his login and password at a reinstatement interview. They wanted to make sure he had no gang affiliations. Really!? Gang affiliations? Maybe he wasn’t really mourning his mother and was actually joining a gang. He said, “I needed my job to feed my family. I had to (comply with their request).”

A spokesperson for Sears Holding Inc. assumes “that people keep their social profiles updated to the minute, which allows us to consider them for other jobs in the future or for ones that they may not realize are available currently.” That’s their line to warrant this invasion of privacy. Do they really think people buy this line of bunk? If they wanted to see my background to consider me for a future job they can peruse my LinkedIn profile, which is always public. And I don’t want to step over her comment that they “assume.” Her comment tells me she is incompetent on a multitude of levels I don’t have time to get into right now. Remember what is said about people who “assume.”

I want to make one thing clear before closing out my comments: I am not opposed to looking into a candidate’s background. It’s perfectly appropriate to do background checks and due diligence on all candidates when they’re approaching the finish line. I got information about candidates for years in my practice (and now teach companies how to do this) and they never even knew it.

It is all in how you approach the problem. If you are going to demand access to a candidate’s personal and private Facebook profile (or any other private information, for that matter), you had better make that clear in your job ad or prior to setting up an interview. Create a proper expectation before the candidate comes through your doors. You have no right to throw that curve ball after the fact and once you’ve spent time with a candidate. Put yourself in their shoes.

We are increasingly becoming a “Do as I say, not as I do” society. Don’t be a hypocrite, and have some respect and consideration for all your applicants. Part of the problem with the ease of looking for a person’s profile while sitting at your desk and staring at a computer screen is that most recruiters and HR folks don’t have the first clue how to get G2 if it’s not readily available online. The greater problem is with these departments and the people who are working there. They don’t have sufficient training and expertise to know how to effectively do many things they are required to do. The Internet has made it exponentially easier to be a bad recruiter. Mark my words: you will get screwed as the economy rebounds. More and more candidates will not tolerate this type of behavior from companies.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Rich Weiser

    Totally agree Carol

  2. Vicki Lauter

    Amen sister!

  3. Megan Bell

    I can’t even believe this is real – these companies should be ashamed of themselves for being giant bullies, and especially to people who need the job. I am shocked and disgusted, and I think HR Professionals need to take a stand. I mean I was upset when companies started doing credit checks, but this is just over the top and there is absolutely NO reason to check anyone’s Facebook page (unless they are a current employee and and you find out they have been slandering or spreading company confidential secrets). Thanks Carol for writing this!

  4. Paula Teck

    Great article!

  5. Peter Radloff

    Carol – brilliant piece on this Facebook nonsense.

    A few thoughts:
    - I wouldn’t work for ANY company or organization that would ask for this. If this started to become the norm for jobs, I’d just delete the account. Not worth it
    - What strikes me as odd is that no one even THINKS about the possibility of one of these employers being some type of identity thief. Yes its far-fetched, but is it out of the realm?

    This is all part of what happens when you have a society of ill-informed, underprepared interviewers hiring people. Instead of finding talent, and relying on widely available tools, they are just looking for ways to screen someone out, and find the least offensive candidate to hire.

    I hope this dies a quick death and employers realize that candidates still choose them as much as they choose candidates.

  6. Darren Ledger

    Brilliant post Carol, love the venom that is clearly evident. You are absolutely right to be angry about this issue.

    I am personally dumbfounded by the legion of people out there who think the future of recruitment is Facebook. Absolute drivel. More and more people are leaving facebook and less and less people trust it.

    This activity has to be illegal surely? I think if you challenged a request to share your password in a court of law the company would lose, and get some extremely bad publicity in the process.

  7. Martin Snyder

    And this is different from drug screening and credit checks for non-safety/fiduciary roles how?

  8. Peter Radloff

    I think that those (IMHO) are more for risk mitigation. There’s a lot more risk in hiring someone who is an identity thief, murderer or meth head than someone who got drunk in college in the 90s and took a photo of it. Just my 2 Cents

  9. Darryl Clements

    This makes me wonder:

    1) Why not reply with agreeing to give one’s Facebook password in exchange for getting the same from everyone on the interview team, the management team, and the co-workers in the perspective area. After all, surely a company willing to ask for that level of probing should be willing to share the same information, right?

    2) Watch out for either a spike in Facebook false profiles (people will create one for their friends and one for others).

    3) Don’t overlook the fact that companies have been forced to ask/demand passwords because they can’t get it directly from Facebook. The very reason Facebook has privacy is being backdoored.

    4) There will be an equal and opposite negative reaction that will shut down candidate flow. In the past, getting an Unfair/Discriminatory Finding Notice posted hurt company’s candidate flow. Something like that will happen as a result of this. Might be through some of the new political inquiries into this practice. Or it simply might be candidates posting the names of companies and specific interviewers and agencies who ask for this type of information.

    5) What are these companies going to do with candidates who share Facebook within their household? Not sure there’s a way to handle that, and not every candidate would want shared info revealed.

    Once the response gets personal pointed the other way or there’s an electronic revealing of the gotcha-companies, this tide will lose momentum.

    Don’t look for HR people to stand up on this one. I’ve often suggested that HR could have secured it’s future and seat at the table simply by mastering talent recruitment, development, deployment, and succession yet it’s not uncommon that it’s the one HR focus that businesses still complain most about. Our profession hasn’t solved this problem yet.

    It appears that those who are paranoid and have avoided Facebook likely have another “told you so” feather in the cap.

  10. Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Carol.
    Captain Renault (from Casablanca, 1942):
    “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

    Is anyone REALLY surprised at this? How different is this than when a company monitors employees’ computers and communications? Is it because an applicant should theoretically have his/her privacy less invaded than an employee? It’s ironic how the U.S “the bastion of liberty” has far fewer privacy protections for e-info than many European countries do….

    We ain’t seen nothin’ yet- wait ’til biometric data and sorting becomes common and cheap…I rather doubt that you’ll be considered to have complete ownership of your own biometric profile. Companies’ goals are logically “to know everything about everyone”. Our world won’t have a “Big Brother” just countless medium-sized, little, and very tiny brothers and sisters probing, snooping, and sniffing out all aspects of our lives.

    No Cheers,

    Keith

    “They will search you out…No place to hide”.
    -Kung Fu, 1972

  11. Bernadette Archuleta

    Carol, thank you for writing this fantastic article! More and more companies are utilizing social media as a means of disqualification without validating any potential EEOC implications. Checking a background and doing drug tests (which are steps that are legally validated and monitored by various agencies) is one thing, but making it compulsory for a potential candidate to give that information is wrong. Companies are taking advantage of applicants and the high unemployment to implement hiring practices that are intrusive and can be considered illegal. What is posted on Facebook (unless it is illegal) does not reflect on a person’s ability to do his or her job, a person’s opinions are their own and are protected by law. This in one thing that needs to be investigated and employers need to stop these practices!

  12. Morgan Hoogvelt

    While surprising to some, not really surprising to me. Most people/hiring managers do not know how to properly conduct an interview nor know what they can and cannot ask.

    The most surprising part would be if anyone actually gave up their passwords. I am sympathetic to anyone who needs to work, however there comes a point when one has to be smart enough to know they are walking into a bad situation. And anyone who asks for anothers private information such as this – is a bad situation to deal with.

  13. Skye Callan

    Great article, Carol – thank you! I also agree with Darryl’s points – requests for passwords should be a two-way street, and as Peter said, employers should realize that candidates still choose them as much as they choose the candidate.

  14. Richard Araujo

    Great article, sums up my feelings totally. This is information to be used to make No decisions, the easiest hiring decision. It’s incompetent hiring managers trying to get access to more information to justify a No or terminal analysis paralysis.

  15. Peter Macdonald

    In reply to Martin Snyder’s comment. Drug testing is often written (legally) into an employment contract as being a condition of employment. Can’t see companies being able to state “you must provide your facebook password” as a condition of employment.

  16. Jessica Max

    Background checks (job history, references, credit, drug, etc) check things that are contained and arguably impactful to your employer.

    Providing your FB password not only is actually against FB rules, but it allows an unprecented invasion of your privacy, not to mention access to information that you legally do not have to provide to an employer (marital stautus, perhaps political affiliation, etc)

    The worst part may not be the invasion of your own privacy, but that of those with whom you interact privately. I can give my company access to my email, but if my Mom sends me a message on FB about a medical procedure (or whatever), then does that not invade her privacy and without her having been asked permission? People use the privacy settings for a reason.

    The company has the right to monitor company email, but how can one justify asking me about my private conversation on personal email, written on personal time about a private matter?

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  18. Nancy Anton

    would you follow your candidate home? See where they worship, how many drinks they have in a bar? Would you want to know what political candidate they endorce or need to know how their last surgery went? Didn’t think so.
    Don’t do on line what you wouldn’t do in your car.

  19. Carol Schultz

  20. Keith Halperin

    @ Nancy:
    Q: would you follow your candidate home?
    A: No.

    Q: See where they worship, how many drinks they have in a bar? Would you want to know what political candidate they endorse or need to know how their last surgery went?
    A: Of course I want to have that information, if it’s out there and publicly (not privately) accessible. I also want to use datamining algorithms to extrapolate their interests, choices, and behavior, so that I know them better than they know themselves and have a pretty good idea of what they’ll do or say before they do or say it. When I started out in recruiting, a very early lesson was that a recruiter needed to maintain control over the candidate, and as the song from the Motels went: “I would sell my soul for total control, over you.”
    http://youtu.be/kLBZjdrKSpY

    ;)

    Keith “What are YOU Hiding” Halperin

  21. Peter Radloff

    Keith – I’m usually all aboard your train of getting straight to the heart of the matter (read: big fan) but here, I just think you are dead wrong. WANTING that info and being legally ABLE to ask for that info are two different things.

    Also, it’s Pandora’s box. Where does it stop. Do we start asking Office Managers if they carry the gene for Sickle Cell Anemia or some other disease? There needs to be a line. I guess I draw it here.

  22. Martin Snyder

    Dont get the logic Jessica- how are Background checks (job history, references, credit, drug, etc) any more contained than Facebook?

    Facebook may reveal things that are are arguably impactful to your employer.

    Job History, Criminal History, and References are clearly in-bounds to get a job- but how is off work hour drug use (of any kind, including Starbucks) and one’s non-business contracts with third parties (e.g. credit) fair game? Should an employer be able to enter your home to see how neat and clean you might keep your cube? Should they be able to take you to the company gym and see how many sit ups you can do, or check your BMI (may impact attendance, stamina, health costs, etc.)

    The problem here is that just about any aspect of human life can impact job performance. Short of employers owning the workforce (which we fought a little war to prevent), where are the limts ? I think they fall well short of Facebook, a person’s private finances, and a person’s criminal acts for which they have not yet been caught by the state; esp. because drug use is a political crime, and political crimes are not moral crimes by any stretch a great deal of the time.

  23. Ken Schmitt

    Bravo! Well said! It is appalling to me that companies would even consider this type of invasion of privacy a “necessary” or “acceptable” form of applicant validation. As the owner of a boutique recruiting and career coaching firm I constantly hear about all the advancements in technology that allow an employer to check into potential employees. And though this technology is readily available, the truth is, it is should not be used in this manner at all. Legal and adequate background checks and resume verification outlets exist that provide relevant information about candidates. However, spying on their private/social lives is unacceptable.

    There is a difference between the personal and the professional. Many employers encourage the use of LinkedIn for research on a particular project or to find market relevant connections, yet they frown upon other social networks such as Facebook as they are “personal” and not always professional. If this is the argument, how is it anything but hypocritical to use those same avenues to gather relevant professional information? I am pleased to hear about the candidate that ended the interview immediately. This is a serious and unnecessary invasion of privacy. It should not be tolerated.
    Ken C. Schmitt
    http://www.turningpointsearch.net

  24. Keith Halperin

    @ Peter: Thank you. I have a rather curious (and perhaps hypocritical stance): I don’t believe that personal information should be requested unless there is good cause, and in some cases, I believe a court warrant should be required. That being said, anything voluntarily released is “fair game”. Example: I don’t believe someone should ask me if I ever drink alcohol. However, if I get totally “wasted” and upload a phone-picture to the internet, then all bets are off- I’ve given up an “expectation” of privacy…

    Consider if you will: with biometric data out there, in a few years organizations and individuals will be able to compile vast databases of publicly-accessible pictures of people doing “regretful” things and be able to identify those individuals and cross-reference them with other publicly available information. The possibility for mischief and intrigue are enormous, and unless we pass a strongly-enforced “Right to Be Forgotten” Law (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/17/us-eu-internet-privacy-idUSTRE72G48Z20110317), there really isn’t anything to stop such a thing from happening:
    “You have the right to remain offline. If you give up the right to remain offline, anything you say, write, create, compose, or express in other ways can and will be used against you (accurately or not) by anyone or everyone for any or no reason for the rest of your life and beyond.”

    No Cheers,

    Keith

  25. Rich Moore

    This idiotic practice far exceeds invasion of the applicant’s privacy. Giving the prospective employer access to your password also gives them access to your friends and families postings, photo’s etc. Possibly even one of their current employees maybe your friend or relative who referred you to the job! Nothing prevents them from using your password and friend status to check up on their own current employee. Blocking your information to only friends will not help. The next step will be for the company to pull in the employee who referred you and ask for their password. Big Brother is now your friend without you knowing. Thank you George Orwell.

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