Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Facebook Draws the Line to Protect Employees’ Online Privacy

By Joanna Kulesa
For many employers, it is standard practice to peruse potential applicants' Facebook profiles, but in some cases employers are taking it a step too far: A number of potential employers have demanded that applicants hand over their Facebook login information so that they can view potential employees’ restricted profiles. In an article I came across recently, Facebook stood up for the rights of applicants. They responded publicly by stating that users should not be required to give up their Facebook passwords or any other private logon information and warned employers that accessing a job seeker's account under such conditions violates the network's policies, infringes on the privacy of the user's friends, and could expose the employer to legal risks.

Now, if you’re in the business of national security you should expect different requests from your potential employer. If you go to work at Lockheed Martin, you should expect and accept that full disclosure will be necessary for gaining security clearance at any level—even if you’re just applying for a maintenance position. This includes more than just handing over a Facebook password. When my sister applied to a big government contractor, personnel physically visited the neighborhood she grew up in and interviewed neighbors who knew her as a child. People now have "digital public personas,” and it’s assumed companies of this type will inspect your public life online just as closely as offline.

However, unless a company is in the business of national security, I don’t feel they have any right to this kind of information. If you’re Proctor & Gamble, for example, you have no business requiring full access to a person's Facebook account. In fact, if an applicant sets up their account to allow access only to approved friends, this serves as notice that they want their privacy maintained in the online world. In this case, potential employers should respect the privacy of applicants. Of course, anyone with a fully open account is notifying the world of the inverse. A company certainly should take a look at a prospective employee's behavior online as long as that information is publicly available.

That said, as the online social world matures, things that seem shocking or career ending today aren't going to raise eyebrows tomorrow. I don't think ten years from now an indiscrete photo of a person found online by a company manager is going to decide whether she gets hired or fired. Rewind 12 years and I required employees to cover their tattoos at all client meetings. Now? No bid deal. The young people out there today doing stupid things online are the future managers who will handle hiring and firing at corporations, so chances are they'll be more compassionate and understanding of youth's virtual follies.

Joanna Kulesa is principal of Kulesa Faul, in San Mateo, CA. Kulesa Faul focuses on public relations, social media and communications strategies for enterprise software and consumer technologies companies.—

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