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Should Employers be Allowed to Access Facebook Accounts in Hiring Initiatives?

April 12, 2012

When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who held both a PhD and a JD.  An expert consultant in test design, selection measures, and employment law, he was frequently called upon to give advice or expert witness testimony.  I recall he had a saying he favored.  It went something like this, “Thank God for all the dumb things employers do, because it means more money for Industrial/Organizational Psychologists.”  Many years later, I’ve yet to see his saying proved wrong.

Case in point, I recently read a blurb where two US Senators are asking the Justice Department and US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate whether employers asking for Facebook user names and passwords during the selection processes are violating federal law.  My first reaction was, “Say what?”  Fortunately, I do not say that a lot.  But, it prompted me to do some research on this issue.

Sure enough, it is apparently happening.  Prospective employers are asking job seekers for their personal user names and passwords for their Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts, so they can poke around and see what they can learn about their candidates.  In the “we don’t follow the laws, we only make ‘em” category, the biggest perpetrators of this snooping tactic are reportedly government and public agencies.

Justifying this practice, prospective employers point to the fact that people post all sorts of private things using social media outlets – things you normally would not learn about someone otherwise.  To this I say, “Really?  C’mon, you’re bullsh!tting me?”  (Deep sigh.)  Of course, people do.  I have some private things in my house too.  That doesn’t mean I am going to give you the keys to my front door, so you can snoop around.  Yet, you want to see what I have stored in my online cloud?  Do you want to see what music I listen to, what church I belong to, what charities I’m interested in supporting? Just when has our judgment become so perverted?

Of course, hiring managers are quick to also say that it’s voluntary.  Yeah, it’s voluntary if you want a job.  This smacks of coercion.  But, what if, like me, you don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account?  Or, what if candidates tell you they do not have an active social media account, you hire them, and find out later they may have lied?  Further, assuming people agree, by what criteria do you plan to objectively judge what is acceptable and what is unacceptable?  What is relevant and predictive of job performance?  When does freedom of speech become unlawful?  When does viewing someone’s Facebook wall in support of her mother’s fight with cancer not violate GINA?  Heck, when does one man’s interest in collecting clown shoes become a deviant foot fetish?  How do you disprove ethnicity, race, gender, religion, disability or some other protected characteristic was not a factor in your decision?  It sum, it’s fraught with pitfalls.

I get it.  In some ways, the hiring process is like a game.  The job seeker’s objective is to position themselves in the best possible light to score a job offer; and the hiring manager’s objective is to ascertain if what the job seeker is portraying is true and if they are a worthy hire.  Employers are trying to gain every edge in this game anyway they can.  But, at what point does gaining an edge become ill-advised, needlessly risky, and potentially illegal?  There are better ways. 

Our best advice is to utilize tests from which valid inferences can be drawn.  Mix in assessments of personal responsibility, conscientiousness, judgment, and integrity, if that is what interests you. And, leave job seekers’ clown shoe collections, cancer treatments, and other personal activities just that – personal.

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Doug Wolf Doug Wolf was the Chief Executive Officer at Select International, which was acquired by PSI. He works extensively with organizations that have large‐scale, national and global staffing needs. His expertise includes competency‐based job analysis, selection system design, validation, applicant sourcing, automated testing, virtual job auditions, structured interviewing, applicant tracking, reducing risk in the selection process, OFCCP and EEOC compliance reporting, and turnover analyses.