I told you so.
It’s not very often you can say that. It is rarer still to have documented proof. But back in 2008 — when nobody was focused on Facebook and there were fewer of you reading this — I said this about using Facebook to screen employees:
Overall, employers should tread very carefully in using social networking sites as a screening device. There are very little substantive advantages to using such sites and there are several landmines employers need to avoid. While they may satisfy an employer’s curiosity, the time-worn principles of checking references, conducting interviews and, if necessary, background screening, should typically satisfy most employer’s need to hire the best candidate.
So, imagine my surprise the last few days when the topic of employers asking applicants for Facebook passwords has suddenly made front page news. (Indeed, the topic of whether passwords are even protected by the Constitution is now making the rounds as well.)
I couldn’t help but say to myself, “NOW you’re interested in this?”
The kerfluffle has been fostered in part by one of Connecticut’s senators, Richard Blumenthal, who wants to introduce legislation to make that practice illegal. Facebook has responded by saying that it will take action against those employers who engage in such a practice.
I’ll make it easy on both of them. If you’re an employer, it’s probably not the best business practice to ask for the passwords of your applicants. In other words, find another way.
Legal issues aside, this story raises another, more fundamental, question—what type of employer do you want to be? Do you want to be viewed as Big Brother? Do you want a paranoid workforce? Do you want your employees to feel invaded and victimized as soon as they walk in the door, with no sense of personal space or privacy? Or, do you value transparency? Do you want HR practices that engender honesty, and openness, and that recognize that employees are entitled to a life outside of work?
Social media provides a lot of benefits to employers. It opens channels of communication between employees in and out of the workplace. And, when used smartly, it enables employers to learn more about potential employees than ever before. You can learn if an employee has good communication skills, is a good cultural fit, or trashed a former employer. But, this tool has to be used smartly to avoid legal risks. Requiring passwords is not smart.