Time to unfriend Facebook checks (Editor’s notes)

Asking candidates to hand over Facebook passwords ‘akin to requiring someone’s house keys’: Lawyer
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/09/2012

Employers, it’s time to end your fascination with Facebook when it comes to conducting background checks.

Last month, the Associated Press (AP) put out an article that posed the question: “Would you reveal your Facebook password for a job?”

Numerous media outlets — including the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star — ran it, and it generated plenty of comments. Only seven per cent of respondents said they would hand over passwords, according to an online poll by the Star.

The AP article focused on the United States, where there seems to be more egregious breaches of social media privacy than in Canada.

Three years ago, I wrote about the City of Bozeman in Montana which asked job candidates to list “any and all current personal or business websites, web pages or memberships on any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, MySpace, etc.” and to provide usernames and passwords for such accounts.

Last year, the issue came up again when the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services asked a corrections officer returning from a leave of absence to hand over his Facebook username and password before reinstating him.

And recently, according to the AP, Justin Bassett, a statistician in New York City, was asked to hand over his login information during a job interview at an unnamed company after the interviewer found out his Facebook page was private.

Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor and former federal prosecutor, probably summed up the whole scenario best when he told the AP: “It’s akin to requiring someone’s house keys” and “an egregious policy violation.”

As we reported in article 12212Alberta’s privacy commissioner has published guidelines for social media background checks. It highlights the numerous risks of using Facebook for background checks, including out-of-date information, inaccurate information (such as mislabelled photographs) and recruiters needing to guess which social media account matches a name on a resumé.

There’s also the danger of collecting too much information or irrelevant information the employer doesn’t need to know in order to make an unbiased hiring decision.

There are a wide range of human rights issues employers could stumble upon. A background check on Facebook can reveal a person’s race, religion and marital status — which could open the door to human rights complaints from unsuccessful applicants. There are certainly some pluses to using social media to conduct background checks, but they come with a lot of negative baggage.

It turns off job candidates. It exposes the employer to legal risk. And it’s no substitute for good old-fashioned recruitment methods — sitting down and talking at length with the candidate about the job.

Background checks are a critical part of the hiring process. Criminal checks, verifying education credentials, contacting references and credit checks are all appropriate tools in the recruitment tool box. And, yes, even using social media can be appropriate.

But asking employees to hand over usernames and passwords? That’s a practice employers should unfriend immediately.

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