When Employers Want to See Your Social Networking Profile
Last June, the city of Bozeman, Mont., became notorious when it implemented a policy that required anyone applying to a city job to hand over logins and passwords for any social networking sites they used. We're not just talking about Facebook and MySpace, either. They wanted access to chat rooms and forums frequented by applicants. After people made a fuss about the invasive policy, Bozeman officials backed down and decided to adjust their application requirements.
That type of interview requirement doesn't seem to have caught on with other employers. Then again, Victory Christian School in North Augusta, S.C., recently announced it wants its students to hand over the same information if they might be acting in a way not in line with the school's policies.
Perhaps job seekers should expect to experience these demands sooner than later. Naturally, questions arise: Is this legal? What if I don't hand over my information? What's the point to all this?
How do employers feel about this?
Employers have been looking at job seekers' online personas for years now. A simple query in a search engine can reveal plenty of information about you. Go to any networking site and type in your e-mail address or name and see what information is available to the public, because employers are already doing that. But if you let someone log in to your account, your privacy settings won't matter. It will all be on display. But should you be panicking just yet?
"As an employer at a PR firm, social networking is a crucial part of our business; hence, it's important our employees are well-versed," says Tyler Barnett, CEO of Tyler Barnett PR. "That being said, we always check the public information [candidates] have out, but would never ask for logins and passwords, or access to [such] a very private arena." For Barnett, it's important for both sides to draw a line.
"I can't even believe employers would do that, and I find it even harder to believe an employee would give that information up," he says. "What's next, granting access to your sock drawer?"
Obviously some companies, unlike Barnett's, do want access. What are they looking for?
What digital dirt do they want?
Objectionable online content isn't all that different from the usual skeletons that employers want to find before making an offer. Some things employers are looking for are:
· Offensive statements, language and behavior
· Unprofessional images of yourself
· Illegal behavior
· Examples of you bad-mouthing your employer
These are the kinds of activities employers have objected to for years, only now the Internet makes them easier to find.
Can they do that?
Jon Yarbrough, a partner at national employment-law firm Constangy, Brooks & Smith says it's absolutely legal to ask for the information. Beyond that, it's your call.
"I've seen a generational gap: The younger employees say employers are invading their privacy, but really they have little to no privacy rights in that way," he says.
Of course, where you live and what you've done make the issue a little murkier.
"In some states, there are statutes that address an employee's ability to engage in lawful activities during off-duty hours," Yarbrough says. "You couldn't penalize someone for something they have written in their blog or MySpace or such. And blogging is lawful. Twittering is lawful. You can't fire them just for that. But if a potential employee had 'this company stinks,' or damaged the company's reputation, then of course they can choose not to hire them."
That seems fairly clear-cut, but when you're not hired for something the employer saw, can you prove that was the reason? Can the employer prove that wasn't the reason?
"The issue becomes what do you do with it and what you see," Yarbrough explains. "In most states, you can refuse to hire that person, except for an unlawful reason. If you saw that I was married to an African-American woman and said 'next,' then that's Title 7 discrimination."
That's difficult to prove, but it's an obvious decision that everyone knows would be wrong to make.
"If you saw me on Facebook doing beer bongs, and I'm 'Mr. Party Animal,' you'd probably shy away and not want to hire me. That would probably be a legal decision to make," he says. "But keep in mind you have five or six states right now that have laws that say individuals can engage in lawful activities in nonwork time. Now I am not sure those laws are broad enough to cover applicants to jobs, but they might be."
So what you've got here is uncharted territory, but you can be certain it will be explored in the coming years. In the meantime, the best you can do is clean up your profiles so what's on display to the public won't cost you a job. Also, decide what you'll do if confronted with this situation. Or maybe everyone will just create two profiles for each site: one for employers and one for fun.
Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/abalderrama.
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