Monday, February 28, 2011

Private Social Media Information - How Much Can an Interviewer Seek?

On the heels of the recently-settled Facebook case brought by the NLRB, another social media controversy has surfaced that already has the American Civil Liberties Union rallying the troops.  It all comes down to one seemingly simple question:  can/should employers "research" individuals online before making hiring or other employment decisions?  This isn't the first time that the issue has come up, but it may get a lot of play in the press and elsewhere this time around.

The latest flap, according to the ACLU's blog, arose when a Maryland corrections officer was required to give his Facebook username and password during a recertification interview.  When he complied, the interviewer immediately logged onto the account and began reading the officer's postings, along with those of his family and friends.

This practice of checking out an applicant's Facebook account during the interview appears to be gaining in popularity in some circles, particularly in the financial sector.  Back in 2009, the town of Bozeman, Montana, made applicants divulge their usernames and passwords for "any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums, to include, but not limited to:  Facebook, Google, Yahoo,, MySpace, etc."  When the practice became widely known over the Internet, the resulting negative publicity quickly caused the town to abandon it.

Without some showing that there really is a legitimate reason why the social media information needs to be known by the employer and that adequate safeguards are in place to protect the individual's privacy -- including both the username/password and any information subsequently uncovered -- it may well turn out that the Maryland policy meets the same fate as Bozeman's.  In the meantime, however, voices on both sides of the debate are sure to make themselves heard.

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