In case you hadn’t heard, the Interwebs and mainstream media have been reporting that some employers have been asking prospective employees to hand over their Facebook log-in information so that they can trawl through accounts looking for any potential skeletons.
It is this author’s opinion that this amounts to an extreme invasion of privacy and that Facebook should take some form of legal action. That may sound extreme or even a little silly – but it makes sense for a number of reasons. But before we get into that, let us first look at what ACLU lawyer Catherine Crump had to say on the matter:
“It’s an invasion of privacy for private employers to insist on looking at people’s private Facebook pages as a condition of employment or consideration in an application process. People are entitled to their private lives. You’d be appalled if your employer insisted on opening up your postal mail to see if there was anything of interest inside. It’s equally out of bounds for an employer to go on a fishing expedition through a person’s private social media account.”
Facebook’s privacy officer Erin Egan issued this unambiguous statement:
If you are a Facebook user, you should never have to share your password, let anyone access your account, or do anything that might jeopardize the security of your account or violate the privacy of your friends…. As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. And as the friend of a user, you shouldn’t have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don’t know and didn’t intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job.
It would seem illogical for Facebook to get involved in a legal squabble that is really between an employer and an employee and it whether or not Facebook has legal grounds to take action is unclear. Prospective employees who don’t pass muster because they refuse to hand over their personal details on the other hand, are in an entirely different position. The problem is that most prospective employees are not employed and not in a position to afford legal representation. They cannot afford it, and the folks in human resources know that they cannot afford it – they also know that most people are desperate for a job and would sacrifice their privacy to get a job – and will ignore or not be aware of the fact that in so doing they are handing over the personal information of each and every person on their contact list. Who knows what information is being saved? People whose details are exposed in this way might have a case against Facebook.
Let’s do the math. Say I have two potential female employees and have access to both of their Facebook accounts. One of them is happily single and has expressed a desire to not have children; the other is newly married and frequently expresses her desire to have children on her friend’s baby shower photos. Who are they going to pick? All things being equal, they are going to pick the one who promises to be a more stable employee, not someone who is going to need maternity leave in the next year or so. I have a very dear friend with a special needs child, she is a proud mom and shares her daughter’s progress over Facebook – as she should be able to – but that would be a red flag to an unscrupulous recruiter. Her daughter is obviously going to need more care than most children, she is going to need to take days off for medical appointments… it would be better to give the job to someone else. It doesn’t matter if they are allowed to look for that information or not, they are going to see it and it is going to influence their decisions, whether consciously or not. What if a person is HIV positive? What if they have epilepsy? What if they mention their use of antidepressant medication? What if they support Ron Paul?
Barring legal intervention they are unlikely to stop – they are certainly not going to stop just because a privacy officer at Facebook told them not to – an example needs to be made… somebody needs to be spanked. Facebook accounts are the low-hanging fruit and when it comes to business intelligence – unsecured accounts allow recruiters to build extensive profiles on prospective employees. Facebook makes a great recruitment tool – a few minutes of snooping in a person’s account will let you know everything you need to know about them: whether they complain incessantly about their job; whether they admit to drug use; the type of people with whom they associate. It can also let recruiters know a lot of things that they are not allowed to ask about, things like sexual orientation, relationship status, religious persuasion, political views, whether or not a woman wants to have children, etc – it is a gold mine. There is little wonder that they want access to it and there is little wonder that some recruiters feel that they cannot adequately assess a potential employee without that information. The access has made them lazy and ineffective in their jobs.
But why should Facebook get involved? For one thing, it is the right thing to do, they are in the financial position to intervene. Punishing a few rogue recruiters will send a message and put a stop to a gross abuse of power. But let’s face it, companies aren’t really motivated to do things for the good of the people. They exist to make money. Well, there are financial motives for that too. Recruiters are just as likely stop asking people for passwords because it is morally reprehensible as Facebook would be inclined to release the legal hounds because it is the right thing to do. Ethics do not factor into this situation. Ultimately it all comes down to money. Recruiters are doing it because it allows them to instantly get their hands on all of a person’s relevant information. It saves them time and in doing so it saves them money. So let us assume that the only reason is the bottom line – well it turns out that there could be financial motivations for Facebook to get involved. As stated above, recruiters are unlikely to stop the practice because the unwashed masses frown upon it. As a result the incidence could very well increase until they are forced to stop. The situation definitely has snowball potential. If more employers start doing it, people will feel that they have no choice but to hand over their details – and that has the potential to cost Facebook members and, as a consequence, money.
If I found out that someone on my friend list had exposed my account, I would be very disappointed in them. I doubt that I would unfriend them, but I would want an explanation. As far as personal interaction with said person goes, I would use my cell phone instead of Facebook. My trust in that person would not suffer, but my trust in his or her social intelligence probably would. As far as bottom line for Facebook goes, that is not going to affect anything. Now let’s say the same thing happened to three or four of my friends. This would be a more serious situation. I would no longer have confidence in my friends’ ability to keep our Facebook communication private but I would not be blaming the individual, I would be blaming the system. My trust in the organization would suffer – it would amount to a dealbreaker and while I might not quit Facebook, I would be less inclined to share. Multiply that effect by the number of people that feel the same way and you have the financial motivation for Zuckerberg and team. Unscrupulous employers have the potential to seriously damage trust in the network – when that is gone, people will update less often and spend less time on the site.
Facebook doesn’t have to go after every employer that ever did this. Unleashing hell on a couple of repeat offenders will send the message that the behavior will not be tolerated. Ultimately, it could save a bit of money – but even if it doesn’t, it would go a long way to establishing goodwill and more importantly, restoring the trust that has been lost through the countless privacy issues that we have all been subjected to over the last few years.