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. 

Why? Jon Hyman on his blog cited several legal reasons but then said it best this morning:

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.

Enough said.

  • Meghan Freed

    Today I’ve been thinking about one piece of this that I don’t believe has been discussed in the midst of the password request kerfuffle (which I agree is at best foolish of an employer and at worst potentially illegal). Although I think it’s generally true that a person’s Facebook account reveals little that’s more valuable than do time-tested methods of references and interviews, etc., that’s more true of folks our age than less, um, seasoned Facebook users. I have seen a sharp contrast, for example, in how some law school students conduct themselves live and in person versus how they behave on Facebook. The utter lack of common sense evidenced by what these folks post is frankly stunning to me, and I suspect, would likely be similarly stunning to a potential employer. In fact, I’ve thought on occasion, “Oh, my goodness how on earth is this person going to get hired.”

    My point is twofold. First, with respect at least to some law students, I have seen demonstrated a willingness to post inappropriate things on Facebook (not sexual — I’m mostly talking about ill-advised and enthusiastic complaining about school and professors and the practice of law scattered with “FML” and other dumb sentiments). The poor judgment evidenced by these people’s Facebook personas would not make a potential employer eager to let these folks near clients. In fact, even if their weak decision making is confined to Facebook, which in many cases it may well be — again, in person, I’ve seen these people be lovely — clients (and judges and colleagues) can potentially see their Facebook pages without a password or even being “friends.” Many of the ill-advised posts I’ve seen come not from Facebook friends but from friends of friends or even friends of friends of friends. Employers shouldn’t use passwords to check potential employees Facebook accounts, but it may be worth just looking via an employer’s own account to see what he or she can see. And, of course, potential employees should keep potential future employment in the back of their heads when updating their Facebook statuses. And check their privacy settings.

    • anettleman

      I knew people in my class that had job offers rescinded (after the economy collapsed!!!) because of the content of their Facebook page. It has become a quasi-common practice for people to use a different name for their Facebook page so that it isn’t directly associated with them and is harder for an employer to find.

      The lack of common sense demonstrated in some otherwise intelligent people’s postings on Facebook is unbelievable. It is bad enough when litigants make admissions on Facebook that directly lead to losing cases, but when their attorneys are doing the same sort of idiotic things it can be unbelievable.

  • schwarda

    Yes, Meghan. Agreed. If a person in this day and age isn’t smart enough to use privacy settings, then it does say a lot about that person.