Picture it: You’re in the running for the job of your dreams. You dress to impress for the interview, and you ace it. Afterwards, the company checks your references and verifies your past work experience. Everything’s looking good.

 Then, you’re thrown a curveball: The hiring manager calls you and asks you for your Facebook password. You can actually hear the thud as your heart drops. You’re silent for a moment. You clear your throat to say something, but nothing comes out, and you just don’t know how to respond.

 I’m not sure how I would respond, either.

 The trend of employers asking applicants for their Facebook passwords is just in its infancy, but it’s growing — and causing a lot of concern. Given the enormous popularity and variety of social media, there are all sorts of questions being raised as to where to draw the line in terms of privacy. If you’re a job seeker, you might wonder if employers are allowed to ask for such information and why your personal Facebook account would have any bearing on your qualifications for a job.

 If you put yourself in the shoes of an employer, however, the reasons behind this trend are clear. Companies have a vested interest in ensuring that their employees refrain from inappropriate online behavior outside of work. Character counts, particularly to hiring managers. Many job functions require discretion, and companies don’t want to be embarrassed by, or lose business because of, an employee’s inappropriate post on a social networking site.

 So some employers are asking for applicants’ Facebook passwords because they simply want to learn more about them before making a hiring decision. Often, they’re looking to make sure that potential employees haven’t posted negative or inappropriate comments about a current or previous employer or one of the employer’s partners or competitors. Those kinds of posts can damage a company’s reputation and business.

 But if a prospective employee has a private Facebook page — meaning, their posts are not viewable by the general public, even through a Google search — then is it really necessary for the employer to access that private account? If the general public can’t see those posts, and the employee is not posting on behalf of an employer, then there should be little concern that those posts will negatively impact the company.

 And with regard to potentially embarrassing photos, does it really reflect poorly on a company if employees’ private accounts hold photos of them drinking in college or engaging in any other kind of legal, non-work-related behaviors? Should applicants be judged for posting those kinds of photos? Should the price for being tagged in a party photo on a Facebook page be joblessness for the rest of your life?

 It’s a question of the need to ask versus the need to know, and the answer is murky. Should employers have access only to information an applicant willingly shares or that’s available in the public space (via online searches)? Hiring managers might want to know if potential employees are affiliated with any controversial groups or have made disparaging remarks about their employers or competitors online, but at some point, applicants’ opinions and affiliations are their own.

 Of course, employers want to do their due diligence before making a hiring decision, but there are many ways to do that without asking for prospective employees’ passwords to social networking Web sites. At some point, applicants’ privacy trumps employers’ need to know. And there are sure to be legal issues to deal with. For example, if applicants refuse to share their password, does that mean they won’t be considered for the job, even if highly qualified? Because they exercised their right to privacy?

 Alternatively, if prospective employees decide to allow an employer to access their Facebook account, will that employer one day ask for the keys to their apartment so they can also rummage through the applicants’ garbage? We have to ask ourselves: When does the envelope get pushed too far?

Personally, I wouldn’t ask a potential employee for that info. Sure, there’s always the possibility that applicants have something to hide. But if I’ve thoroughly interviewed them in person, verified their work history and talked with their references, and decided that they’re the best-qualified candidate, then, as long as they haven’t posted something inappropriate that’s available online in the public domain, I’d offer them the job.

Eric Yaverbaum is associate publisher at Tweeting & Business Magazine in New York.