Employers, why asking for Facebook account access is bad

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A recent flurry of articles have been published about employers asking for Facebook account access demonstrates the lack of understanding of social networks. Facebook is a personal social network that people use it as a primary communication tool for family and friends. It is also a trusted channel of sharing information — like email. The privacy settings in Facebook and all the issues around the Terms of Services speak to how people view it as a deeply private space. On top that, Facebook isn’t too happy about other people gaining access to your account.

When you ask for access to someone’s profile on Facebook I see the following issues:

  • It contains information that is way outside of the scope of employment such as sexual orientation, religion, who they have a relationship with, who they are friends with, communications between friends and family, and more.
  • People that have allowed friend access to that person have a trust relationship with that person — when a potential employer accesses that profile they assume the identity of that person in that relationship. (Update: I think this why Facebook is unhappy about this practice)
  • The person that just gave you access to their Facebook profile isn’t concerned about the confidential information of others they just made available to a stranger. Does that say more about them than a picture of them slumped over with a beer in their hand from 5 years ago?
  • People can (and do) set up fake profiles and carefully create the persona they think you want to see.

In the article published by AP, it seems to be perceived ok to ask for access or a friend request especially in public service jobs. What I really like is this part of the article when talking about what they might find on Facebook:

When asked what sort of material would jeopardize job prospects, Thomas said “it depends on the situation” but could include “inappropriate pictures or relationships with people who are underage, illegal behavior.”

Woah, wait a minute. What is inappropriate is completely subjective. Could it be simply a picture of a guy hugging another guy is inappropriate for that job? The answer that person would have might be no but once they gain access to someone’s profile how can they say it didn’t influence them? What other information do you get with that access? You gain access to all the information that opens you up to being accused of discriminatory practices. What would be considered discriminatory practices? From the US Equal Opportunity Commission:

  • harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, genetic information, or age;
  • retaliation against an individual for filing a charge of discrimination, participating in an investigation, or opposing discriminatory practices;
  • employment decisions based on stereotypes or assumptions about the abilities, traits, or performance of individuals of a certain sex, race, age, religion, or ethnic group, or individuals with disabilities, or based on myths or assumptions about an individual’s genetic information; and
  • denying employment opportunities to a person because of marriage to, or association with, an individual of a particular race, religion, national origin, or an individual with a disability. Title VII also prohibits discrimination because of participation in schools or places of worship associated with a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group.

Similar laws exist in Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and throughout the European Union.

Just because the information exists now in social networks like Facebook should not mean that employers should gain access to that as a way of ensuring they make a good hiring decision. Furthermore, if you rely upon the social network information you could be fooled into thinking someone is a certain way because what they gave you access to was a carefully crafted fake profile to make them look awesome. I am not saying you shouldn’t use social networks in hiring – if you don’t currently use LinkedIn you are missing out on a very powerful tool for due diligence, in a professional way, on someone.

Update: asking for facebook access is illegal in Canada says lawyers

I just think employers should stay out of people’s Facebook profiles and mainly because they find out way too much information on someone and it may put the employer at risk.

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