Forking over a Facebook password to an employer?


(MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)

According to a report by the Associated Press Monday, some employers are asking interviewees to cough up their passwords rather than simply glancing at the publicly available pictures on Facebook or comments on Twitter. The practice is apparently more prevalent among law enforcement agencies, which are looking for gang associations or inappropriate relationships with minors that could be problematic, though a few companies are reportedly doing so as well. Experts aren’t just questioning whether the practice is an invasion of privacy — as one commenter to an ACLU post said, “will the next step be to request a key to my house?” — but even the technical legality of it. States like Illinois and Maryland are considering legislation against it.

What baffles me about the practice is how these organizations’ leaders could possibly think this won’t come back to haunt them. For one, it sets up an incredibly imbalanced sense of trust between employers and their staff. Presumably, the interview process includes a background check, a request for references, and an interview or questionnaire about one’s background, record and experiences. To ask for a Facebook password implies the company doesn’t trust you — or its confidence in other perfectly legal, frequently used tactics for getting information about the people they hire. Even if some employers might be doing this to weed out gang sympathizers or other criminals (because of course that’s what people reveal on their Facebook page!), that ignores the very real and very damaging long-term costs to organizational culture, employee retention and managerial trust.

In addition, it makes for some pretty awkward scenarios most people would prefer to keep out of the workplace. Even if we’ve been good about keeping the photos from our sister’s bachelorette party off of Facebook, most of us probably don’t relish the thought of our future bosses flipping through photos of us in a bathing suit from a recent beach vacation. Friends who innocuously post something about a job opportunity could make it look like we’re looking for a new job. And that day we skipped out a half hour early to catch a baseball game after pulling a late night the evening before? We’d probably prefer our manager not to see pictures of us at the game.

Perhaps most unsettling is the attempt being made by some of the few employers who actually do this to say forking over a Facebook password is “voluntary.” Even if it technically is, in a job market like this one, most applicants and employees aren’t going to think they have much choice.  "Volunteering is coercion if you need a job," IIT Chicago-Kent law professor Lori Andrews told the Associated Press.

It doesn’t appear that these invasive requests are all that common, and I highly doubt they’ll become so. But any manager or leader even considering asking an employee or potential employee for their Facebook password should bear in mind what happened when statistician Justin Bassett was asked for his: He withdrew his application. If you don’t trust your employees, particularly ones in high-demand careers you could lose in an instant, they’re not going to trust you either.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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