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Should Employers Require Applicant's Social-Media Passwords?

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Should Employers Require Applicant's Social-Media Passwords?

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

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If you scoffed at that headline, you should stop mid-scoff: An Associated Press story out earlier this week describes a scenario in which a Seattle company asked a potential hire for exactly that when they realized his Facebook account was set to private.

To my mind, there's only one reasonable reaction to this situation: It's completely ludicrous and unreasonable for a boss to expect access to an employee's social media accounts. I understand companies don't want to bring anyone onboard who could negatively impact their image, but there are other factors at play here than how someone conducts themselves on Facebook and Twitter.

Most people I talked to agreed. "I was struck by how the AP article made it seem as almost a natural progression in technology to ask for such passwords," said Tim Murphy, the Chicagoan behind applymate.com, an online tool to help people track job and school applications. "With so many people desperate for a job, few will see keeping their Facebook page private as paramount to finding work, and employers know that. It's exploiting a job seeker's already very difficult situation."

Other folks I talked to had other possible solutions, be it simply not using social media (I think that's likely to make you seem stuck in the caveman era) or saying, bluntly, "no." I'm inclined to think if you just say no, they'll show you the door and opt instead to hire someone who's more of a team player -- even if that entails sacrificing their own privacy a bit.

What I was curious to find, and to some extent found, was a minority of folks who actually could see the upside to this. E. Chandlee Bryan, the career coach quoted in the AP style, offered me this potential upside to the process, citing a 2010 survey of US recruiters and human-resource professionals from Microsoft: "The percentage of employers who say a positive online presence influences hiring decisions outweighs those who say they've rejected candidates they've found online."

More to the point, David Wojdyla, who in April is unveiling a new ad agency in Chicago, offered this:

"I've never asked [applicants] that question. But starting today, I'll add it to my list. Does that make me a voyeur? Hardly. I have little interest in seeing a job applicant's photo albums or in reading one more snarky comment. I barely have time to do that with my own circle of family & friends. What I'm really after is how someone thinks on their feet. Life is full of surprises. The ad industry even more so. Hearing a well-thought-out "no" response to the question "may I have your Facebook password?" could convince me to hire that person on the spot."

So, there you go. Maybe it's bad and maybe it's good, but this could one day become just another question potential hires have to be ready for in an interview, just like, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" and "What's your biggest weakness?" If you're unprepared, here are answers that have never steered me wrong: "Celebrating the five-year anniversary of you asking me this question, and, oh, I'm too hard of a worker." 

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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