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Facebook privacy: Can firms legally demand passwords from job applicants?

On Friday Facebook criticized the new practice of screening job applicants as 'alarming,' and some employment specialists say it could expose firms to legal land mines.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / March 23, 2012

Some private employers are asking potential employees for their Facebook passwords. Is that going to far?

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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New York

Social Intelligence Corp. seeks to help its corporate clients “gain a deeper insight into both professional and personal characteristics of potential employees, identifying negative behaviors and activities” as well as uncovering positive attributes.

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To do that, the background-screening firm, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., looks at electronic media – think Facebook and Twitter.

But while Social Intelligence says it only uses publicly available information, some other private employers are going further, asking potential employees for their Facebook log-ins and passwords – an action that Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, decried on Friday.

For some time now in this age of social media hyper-connectivity, job seekers and others have had to confront the reality that what happens on social media sites does not necessarily stay on social media sites.

“We are in the age of transparency,” says John Challenger of Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm in Chicago. “And, in an age of transparency, there are some risks.”

However, some employment specialists say employers’ use of social media to investigate future employees is potentially full of legal land mines, especially if is done by the company itself without consideration for federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Some employment executives say asking a job candidate for log-ins and passwords is a violation of privacy.

Legislators in two states, New Jersey and Illinois, as well as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut are drafting laws outlawing employers from asking for social media passwords.

“Americans are entitled to a fundamental right of privacy,” says Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D) of Gloucester County in New Jersey, sponsor of the legislation, in an interview. “Being asked to surrender your log-in and password when jobs are so tight is not appropriate.”

Employment specialists say that if an employer asks for such private information, the request puts the potential employee in a difficult situation. If they refuse to hand over their personal information, the potential employer may simply say they decided to hire someone else.

“It might raise a red flag,” says Joanie Ruge, an employment expert and chief employment analyst for Randstad, the second largest staffing company in the world. “What is this person hiding? Should I be concerned?” asks Ms. Ruge, who thinks such corporate Internet sleuthing is intrusive.

On Friday, Facebook’s Ms. Egan said the organization found it “most alarming” that employers are asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords.

“If you are a Facebook user, you should never have to share your password, let anyone access your account, or do anything that might jeopardize the security of your account or violate the privacy of your friends,” Egan wrote in a statement. “That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.” 

Under existing law, it could be unlawful for a firm to monitor an employee’s social media private postings, says William Greenbaum, a labor lawyer and a partner at Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland, N.J.

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