You’re an open (Face)book

In Business & Technology /

Some employers are asking interviewees for Facebook passwords. Although it isn’t technically illegal, the practice has many young professionals feeling a bit nervous. Online editor Jeff Lagerquist and Biz and Tech editor Sarah Del Giallo report

You’re on the edge of your seat with perfect posture as you sweat your way through a job interview. Things seem to be going well as you answer your prospective employer with poise and confidence. It’s a great job, and you really need it.

“This all looks great. But one last thing.”

“Anything,” you respond.

“We just need your Facebook username and password. It’s a new policy. Everyone has to do it.”

Your heart sinks into the pit of your stomach as you realize that your business attire and glowing references can’t hide that cell phone pic of you doing a keg-stand with your buddies last summer.

Companies have started asking for social network access in job interviews, causing a wave of panic among young adults trying to make it in the professional world.

The trend is also raising issues over privacy and employer discrimination when making new hires.

Andrew Langille, a labour and employment lawyer in Toronto, says that employers are taking advantage of a poor job market and the high youth unemployment rate.

“With the weight of the financial crisis and the recession, we’re in a period where jobs are hard to come by, especially for young people,” he says. “Employers appear to have taken this as a carte blanche to violate people’s rights and plunge into their personal information, which they have no right to look at.”

With unrestricted access to a Facebook profile, a potential employer could look into a user’s race, marital status, sexual orientation and intention to have children — answers to questions that are illegal to ask in job interviews.

“You can’t decide to hire someone on the basis of what their sexual orientation is, what their family status is, what their race is — those types of questions and practices that uncover that information are generally illegal,” says Langille.

The issue is drawing the most attention in the U.S. where the high unemployment rate is driving a desperate job market.

The House of Representatives voted against a bill that would prevent employers from demanding job applicants reveal social media passwords as part of their application on Mar. 28.

Last month, The Toronto Star reported that Peel Region Police are asking for Facebook passwords from new applicants. While the practice of asking job applicants for access to their private profiles is not illegal in itself, using the personal information that most profiles contain violates two aspects of the Ontario Human Rights Code, according to Langille.

Section 5.1 states that every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to employment without discrimination. Section 23.2, prohibits an employer from asking the applicant to disclose the information mentioned in section five.

“There is absolutely no obligation to hand over social media passwords, email passwords and personal information of that nature,” says Langille.

On March 23, Erin Egan, the chief privacy officer at Facebook, posted about the issue, calling the increase in reports of employers seeking access to profiles “distressing.”

“The most alarming of these practices is the reported incidents of employers 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,” said the post.

Fourth-year sociology student Aleksandra Antic had a distressing experience in a recent job interview. She sat down, and the man interviewing her mentioned that she played the violin. When she asked how he knew that, she realized he had her publicly viewable Facebook profile open on his computer.

“He had creeped me,” she said.

Antic sees an employer looking up an applicants profile as a huge invasion of privacy.

“It’s a little bit discriminating. They can see what you look like, your interests,” she says. “It’s a little bit violating.”

First-year hospitality and tourism student Brian Nam doesn’t agree entirely. He understands an employer’s right to view a public profile, but not their intention to access the account.

“I know Facebook is open sourced, but there are privacy settings,” he says. “Looking up their Facebook to see what’s public is fine I guess. But [asking for login information] is too much of an invasion of privacy.”

Jaime Almond, an internet marketing and social media specialist, says that the idea of a right to privacy is disappearing as social media becomes more prevalent.

This trend is creating a major issue for young people entering the job market. Almond says the practice should be resisted completely, and personal privacy has become more difficult to hold on to in the last few years with the open-book mentality of Google and social media profiles.

“It’s such a gross overstep of personal privacy,” she says. “Asking for your Facebook account password is about finding out what a person does in their private time. I think the practice is overly paranoid and I don’t see how it’s relevant to an employer.”

She says an employer asking for login information shows that giving out private information has become less of a choice, and more of an expectation, and this is a problem.

“The more we give into this, the less our privacy becomes a right and a choice, and it becomes expected that we expose all of our most personal information.”

This creates a dilemma for new graduates who are desperate to break into their profession. When put on the spot, how could an applicant avoid disclosing uncomfortable information without risking the job?

“I would recommend not having anything go online that you wouldn’t feel comfortable having a prospective employer see,” says Almond. “Make your profile as secure and private as possible.”

For those that want to be extra careful while on the job hunt, Almond says other options include creating a fake profile while deactivating your original, or even shutting down your Facebook profile while looking for a job.

“What they’re asking for is information that is not necessarily relevant to your working life,” says Almond. “I’m hoping there will be some laws passed that will protect people from these types of questions. Technology always moves quicker than the controls of it.”

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