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Facebook Foibles

It's not just the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Employers generally are still fumbling around in the Facebook dark. And more shins will be bruised before we find the light switch.

March 26, 2012
Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage, Legal Compliance, Technology and the Law, Social Media, Legal, Technology
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Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services recently got a black eye for the way it handles job applicants and their Facebook accounts. But it really isn't fair to single them out. Nobody has fully answered questions of employee privacy and scrutiny in the social media era.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services reportedly asked job applicants to log into their Facebook accounts and let the interviewer check postings and the like. Earlier, the department had asked candidates to give up Facebook passwords. But it's not alone in pushing to see what's behind social networking curtain. Other organizations, especially law enforcement agencies, do such things as ask applicants to "friend" background investigators.

To most people, these sorts of requests cross the line. That's partly because of the intensely personal way people are expressing themselves on Facebook and the way they are using privacy settings to create intimate networks of friends and family. In effect, there's a growing expectation of privacy on Facebook and other networks initially touted as highly public.

Asking for a Facebook password is "akin to requiring someone's house keys," Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor, told the Associated Press.

Another person horrified by requests to open up private profiles is Dan Finnigan, CEO of recruiting software firm Jobvite. To him, demanding access to Facebook accounts as a condition of employment undermines the core benefit of social media: encouraging people to share much of themselves.

"If this becomes standard, people will only revert to a more 'generic' definition of themselves, an almost fake online façade, extinguishing the value of this emerging new social world," Finnigan says.

Facebook recently jumped into the fray, warning against the sharing of passwords. "As a user, you shouldn't be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job," wrote Erin Egan, chief privacy officer for policy.

But I have a bit of compassion for the employers who've asked to peek into social media accounts. The law hasn't caught up to social media technology. And especially in the public safety world, stakes are high. I heard a Los Angeles newscaster point out that if an organization hired someone who abuses a child, and it later is revealed that their Facebook account made that risk clear, the organization would be criticized to no end.

New laws that clarify matters are under consideration. Services that try to scour social media accounts in ways that are fair to both candidates and companies are emerging. And slowly, through incidents like the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services brouhaha and legal spats on matters such as who owns social media accounts, we are figuring out how the social media world fits in with the world of work.

But we're still fumbling around in the Facebook dark. More shins will be bruised and more eyes blackened before we find the light switch.

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce Management. To comment, write to efrauenheim@workforce.com.

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