Last week, at a local Java Meet Up on the topic of Ethics and Social Media, I learned about a new trend of employers asking applicants for their social media passwords (or peeks behind the privacy curtain of their social accounts) as part of the interview process.
According to Minnesota headhunter, Paul DeBettignies, this is thankfully something that happens infrequently (and, most of the instances he has heard of occurred on the West Coast) but it does bring up some interesting questions for social media users to consider.
For example, should employers ask applicants for this information, and, more importantly, what does it say about that company’s ethics and boundaries when they do?
I think we all agree that it’s becoming standard practice for potential employers to use the web (including social channels) to research applicants and, that the information they find online influences their hiring decisions. But, I feel that asking to see information that is not public-facing crosses a line.
Yes, nothing you put online is 100% private (for example, Mark Zuckerberg and Co. are tracking every morsel you tuck away on Facebook). But, should you choose to maintain a private Facebook Group, protect your tweets or establish a small G+ circle of friends — and have the info shared in those places be off-limits to the world at large — I think those limits should be respected by employers.
Asking you to show or give access to those protected accounts at an interview is like requesting that you show them photo albums of your kids or pull down your pants give them a look at your new tattoo. It’s inappropriate and irrelevant.
It’s also manipulative. We’re in a recession and many people are hungry for work, shifting a lot of the power balance in the hiring relationship to the employer. As DeBettignies points out, “employers know that if someone says, ‘no,’ they can move on to the next candidate.”
The double-edged sword of social privacy.
I do understand where employers are coming from on this issue. Before I started my consulting business back in 2001, I was a headhunter, myself. And once, while doing that job, I unknowingly placed a white supremacist in a job…at an ammunition factory.
Had I had the means to snoop around this person’s past on behalf of the employer, I would have. And if I had found a blog expressing his views on the white race or an unprotected Facebook page with pictures of him holding up signs with swastikas on them, I would likely have passed him over for the gig.
But none of that info was online then, and this person passed his criminal background check with flying colors, so he got the job. (And excelled at it, incidentally. He really liked guns. Go figure.) He worked at the factory for quite some time before his extracurricular activities came to light and led to his firing.
The lesson I learned from this experience is that people are really good at keeping secrets. Even if you have access to everything they post online or interview them for hours, you still won’t truly know a person. Ultimately, good hiring decisions come down to both a leap of faith and a feeling in your gut. And unfortunately, sometimes both can let you down.
Saying “No,” gracefully.
So, how should you handle it if you are asked for your social passwords or a peek at your private social accounts while at a job interview?
DeBettignies suggests that the answer depends on your skill set, industry, location and these questions…
- How bad do you want/need the job?
- How truly offended are you in being asked?
- Is there anything behind the curtain to worry about?
Ultimately, this is a gray area for both employers and employees to navigate. It’s going to take time to better define boundaries from both sides and clarify what “private” and “public” really mean and how we should draw the line between “personal” and “professional.”
I’m afraid that when it comes to social media and the employer/employee relationship, the creepy, confusing and compromising questions are just beginning.