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Facebook Passwords: The Brouhaha and What You Should Know

by Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR  4/22/2012
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Recent news stories documenting cases of job applicants who had been asked to provide their Facebook passwords to potential employers during the job application process have caused a significant outcry among job candidates, employment experts say. Facebook itself has warned employers not to demand the passwords of job applicants, saying that it is an invasion of privacy. And U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, has called for the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate and is working on a bill to address the issue.

How real or widespread this issue is may still be up for debate. But there is no doubt that it is an issue that has captured the attention of the public and, as with anything related to social media, still open to interpretation as legal precedents are established.

For job seekers it raises concerns about whether such requests will be made during their own interviews and, if so, how they should respond.

Don Schroeder, a member of the Mintz Levin law firm based in Boston, says, “While there is no question that employers have a right to review any information that is publicly available in deciding whether to offer a position to an applicant, a proactive effort to learn about an applicant’s Facebook account is a slippery slope. Just like the prohibition on inquiries about an applicant’s medical condition or sexual orientation, employers should avoid any attempts to pry into an applicant’s Facebook account.”

Still, as HR practitioners well know, what’s appropriate and what happens in practice can be two very different things. If asked to share a password, Schroeder suggests the following potential responses:

  • “I will certainly allow you to review my public postings on Facebook, but I would rather not share my password and would ask that you respect my privacy.”
  • “No one has my Facebook password, and I don’t want to reveal it for security reasons.”
  • “Just like I am sure you would not want to disclose your Facebook password, I don’t want to do so for the same reasons.”
  • “My Facebook account is linked with a lot of my friends and family and while I don’t mind sharing information about myself, I feel compelled to protect the privacy of others.”

One final consideration, of course, is whether you would even want to consider working as an HR professional in an organization that would make such a request. It is, after all, a very telling indicator of a company’s culture.

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