Job Front: Interviewers say asking for social media passwords is off-limits

04/16/2012 12:00 AM

04/16/2012 6:57 AM

Professional attire? Check. Cover letter and résumé? Check. Passwords to your Facebook and Twitter accounts?

Not so fast.

It's a new frontier and potentially new pressure for job seekers: employers requesting job applicants' private social media passwords and log-ins to check a job candidate's background.

"Right now, employers are exploring their options and obligations," said Barbara Cotter, an attorney at Sacramento employment law firm Cook Brown and an authority on social media and employment. She said many employers rely on traditional background checks, but said that could change.

"There's no (state) statute that addresses this situation. That's going to be a dilemma" for job seekers, Cotter said. "You want that job."

With the advent of social media, the notion of privacy has become more elastic. We post photos on Facebook and Pinterest; tweet what's on our minds on Twitter; share career information on LinkedIn.

But employers' access to applicants' social media accounts has grabbed the attention of lawmakers, employment experts and others concerned about the privacy and employment implications for job seekers.

Maryland last week became the first state to bar employers from asking for job applicants' private social media user names and passwords.

Employers in favor of the access requests say mining job seekers' sites can alert them to red flags such as violent or other troubling behavior and can help them sift through the applicant pool.

But sites such as Facebook are akin to "a personal family photo album or postcards. It's your diary," Cotter said. "This is an issue that will likely be resolved by legislation. Absent of legislation, this could pose problems for employers and employees alike by not knowing what their rights are."

NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, last week, said the practice "violates ethical standards," and emphasized a recruiting process in which "students are free from undue pressure."

"We advise college career services professionals to counsel their students that employers do not have a right to require them to provide their logins and passwords during the employment recruiting process," said Marilyn Mackes, the group's executive director.

In California, state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, is pushing similar legislation. His social media privacy act would also prohibit employers from requesting applicants' log-in information.

Yee said his work on the issue started several years ago after talks with the state's tech community.

Individuals applying for jobs were asked to reveal personal and confidential information in their accounts. "That's so contrary to what California is all about. Individual matters are individual matters," the senator said. "Employers say, 'We need to know the individual we're hiring.' My answer is, 'How did you do it in the past?' "

Some in the local employment industry contacted by Job Front said reviewing social media sites has become part of the recruiting process, but that employers stop short of requesting passwords.

"Our sense of the local market is: 'Do employers look at what everybody else can?' Of course they do. Have we tried to ask for information not in the public venue? We don't do it," said Jay Jurschak, president of Sacramento employment firm Pacific Staffing. "Will some (employers) attempt to? Probably. Should they? No. Going any further is a questionable thing."

That said, Jurschak stressed that job seekers guard online information.

"Employees should protect their information. If it's on the Internet, it's going to be there. It's not going away. Everyone does have access to it," he said.

Amelya Stevenson, a past president of the Sacramento Area Human Resource Association, strongly opposes the practice.

"What I tell everyone is that interview questions must be job-relevant. Is asking for a password job-relevant? Absolutely not. It's totally against the ethics of recruiting," Stevenson said. "Private passwords have nothing to do with the skills and abilities of a job."

Employment attorney Cotter cites the California Constitution, which expressly ensures Californians' privacy rights.

"Californians have a right to privacy," Cotter said. "That includes job applicants."

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