Reports of companies asking job applicants for their logins and passwords to social networking sites like Facebook elicited a firestorm of criticism recently, prompting two U.S. senators to call for a government investigation, and legislators in several states to propose making the practice illegal.
The uproar started with an Associated Press article quoting job candidates who were asked to provide their logins and passwords for Facebook or other social networking sites by potential employers. The article cited several employers that ask for such information, including a Montana police department, which also asks for access to job candidates’ e-mail accounts. In response, Sens. Ralph Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent letters to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice asking them to investigate the legality of such requests.
But data from the Society of Human Resource Managers suggest that the practice is not widespread. In a 2011 survey of 541 SHRM members, just 18% said they use social networking sites as a tool for screening job candidates, while another 11% said they plan to use such sites in the future.
Tracy Smith, president of the Capital Region Human Resource Association in upstate New York, an affiliate of SHRM, says hiring managers that do use social media sites most often look at what a prospective employee has posted on LinkedIn or use Google to search for the individual. If they do look at Facebook, she says, they look at what’s available publicly.
When Smith surveyed her members last week, just 10% of the 173 executives who responded said they use Facebook to screen job applicants. All respondents said they don’t ask job applicants for their Facebook login and password. “Is it a widespread issue?” Smith says. “It doesn’t appear to be.”
She argues that the publicity around the issue could be beneficial if it reminds hiring managers and other executives of the risks involved in researching potential hires on the Internet. A hiring manager could inadvertently learn something about a candidate via such sites, such as his or her age, race or religious affiliation, decide against hiring the candidate and then face a lawsuit charging discrimination.
Hiring managers avoid such topics in interviews, Smith says. A job candidate’s religious affiliation, for example, “is not something you would find out in an interview, but going on Facebook, absolutely you could find that,” she says.
In the 2011 SHRM survey, this concern was the reason given most frequently for not using social networking sites, cited by 66%.
David Gallai, a partner at the law firm of Chadbourne & Parke in New York, says using social networking sites to assess job candidates involves “potential liability.”
“As an employer, you want to make your decisions about a candidate based on legitimate business criteria and what that candidate brings to the table in the sense of being able to get the job done,” Gallai says. “Going on Facebook, you don’t know how reliable that is, and you may become aware of things that shouldn’t be part of the job process,” such as age or sexual orientation.
“If it doesn’t taint the employer’s decision-making process, it can be perceived as having tainted it, and that’s a place that you as an employer don’t want to end up,” he says.
Gallai notes that invasion of privacy claims fall under state law. While such claims wouldn’t succeed in New York, he says employers in other states could find themselves facing a lawsuit over privacy.