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Social Scrutiny of Job Candidates, Employees, and Students: 7 Considerations

Questionable practices related to organizational scrutiny of the social networking activity of individuals has received a great deal of press recently. My latest blog post provides food for thought for individuals and organizations engaging in these practices (or considering doing so) to reconsider their choices and pursue better alternatives. It also provides additional resources that offer deeper discussions on this and related issues.


About a month ago MSNBC published an article entitled Govt. Agencies, Colleges Demand Applicants’ Facebook Passwords, which was followed bythis Associated Press article that ran in a variety of publications. The focus of the stories was on people in positions of authority (e.g., recruiters, hiring managers, coaches) requiring access to privately-designated areas of social networking accounts so they could look for information, activities, and/or relationships that might create risk for an organization, such as gang-related activity, racial prejudice, or a tendency toward violence.

The pieces spawned a number of follow-up stories and blog posts (including this one from me) and incited hundreds of mostly negative comments from readers. Much of the discussion, especially from readers, focused on the employer practice of asking job candidates to provide login credentials for their social network accounts – particularly Facebook – as a condition of the recruitment and selection process. What got lost in much of the kerfuffle over this extremely rare practice is the need to discuss practices that are far more commonplace and occupy grayer areas of right and wrong. These practices include shoulder screening (asking a person to log in and then viewing content and relationships they’ve designated as private); friending job candidates, employees and students for the purposes of keeping tabs on them; and browsing an individual’s account without their knowledge or consent.

I’ve contributed my thoughts to a number of discussions over the past few weeks and have written several in-depth pieces about the practice of social screening and related issues since the fall of 2010. As I continue to read and think about these issues and the best approaches to addressing them, seven considerations have emerged that are worth highlighting and reiterating. This post captures those considerations, providing food for thought for individuals and organizations currently engaging in questionable practices (or thinking about them) to reconsider their choices and pursue better alternatives. I also provide additional resources that offer deeper discussions on this and related issues.

Here is a recap of the considerations. Click here to read the complete post.

  1. “Not Illegal” doesn’t mean “Ethical”
  2. Just because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should
  3. Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right
  4. Remember the Law of Unintended Consequences
  5. Is Turnabout Fair Play?
  6. You Reap What You Sow
  7. If You’re Going to Do It, Do it Right

As always, I welcome comments and questions and invite healthy and constructive dialogue.

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Corey McCarren

I agree with your assessment, and I also believe that practices like this aren’t even necessary at all. If the person has enough of a proven track-record of success for an organization to want to hire them, should they really feel compelled to check their social accounts anyway? If they don’t have a criminal record what could you possibly find on social that would be relevant to how they would function in your organization if all of their references check out?

John Lucien Grillo

I think that looking into a prospective candidate’s public profile would allow an employer to evaluate the attitude, interest, and behavior of that individual. However – asking for a password is bizarre. It’s the social media equivalent of giving a complete stranger your social security number and address. Screening social media outlets is only going to become more prevalent in the years to come. The best way to be prepared for this changing environment is to manage your online privacy and public voice intelligently.

Henry Brown

The real IMPACT:

From KHOU Houston Texas

HOUSTON—A teacher’s aide in Michigan has been suspended because she refused to give her Facebook password to her employer. And our KHOU 11 News legal expert says it could easily happen in Texas as well.

Kimberly Hester of Cassopolis, Michigan posted a picture last year of a co-worker’s pants down around her ankles. Only that co-worker’s pants and shoes are visible in the photo.

At the time Hester was a teacher’s aide at Frank Squires Elementary in Cassopolis. Another parent, who is one of Hester’s Facebook friends, notified the school superintendent.

Hester said she was told by Lewis Cass ISD superintendent Robert Colby that he would like her Facebook password so that he could view the photo himself.

“He asked me three times if he could view my Facebook and I repeatedly said I was not OK with that,” said Hester.

In a letter to Hester from the Lewis Cass ISD Special Education Director, he wrote “…in the absence of you voluntarily granting Lewis Cass ISD administration access to you[r] Facebook page, we will assume the worst and act accordingly.”

Katt Hancher

I read the entire blog and would like to thank you for an excellent and complete discussion of this complicated topic.

John Lucien Grillo

Courtney – I also want to thank you for posting the link to your digital make-over article. It was really well done.

Dennis Snyder

Why would anyone allow their ***POTENTIAL*** employer to get into personal records? That’s what background investigations and NACIs are for. What this article says is you are allowing someone untrained in security investigations to take matters into their own hands. This is basically cyber-vigilanteism, and at the very depths of its worst. If I applied for a position and was asked to provide such account logins and passwords I would withdraw my application and post that withdrawal on Facebook and whereever else I could think of as a warning to others. I would ask that anyone here who has more than anecdotal information on this topic, i.e. actually being asked for a password to post the names of those companies here.

Jeffrey Levy

An excellent discussion that brings some very good thinking to this very complex issue.

That is, I think it’s a blindingly simple issue, but the mere fact that some seem to think this is acceptable behavior makes it complex.

Thanks very much! Going to link to this from Twitter.

Spanky Frost

@ Corey McCarren… there could be plenty of unprofessional information on a person’s facebook and not on any police blotter or enforcement record. Friends of friends will post conversations of very revealing things which they will think is funny… but possibly unethical or criminal to the employer. NACI and other checks are just that.. a check of a database… not a physical investigation. I am not in favor of potential applicants giving up facebook passwords and accounts, but it isn’t hard to type a person’s name into google or bing and find a bundle of information. I have warned my son and his friends over the years (teens into his twenties) that be careful what you post on the internet (facebook, myspace, etc.) because negative things will haunt you forever. They didn’t listen. Although nothing negative happened… but if someone wanted dirt on them, all they have to do is a simple search…