There have been several stories in the news recently about employers requesting the Facebook passwords of employees and job applicants. Should employers have access to our most private details? What rights do employees have in this situation? Is this even legal?

Why would an employer want my Facebook password?

Employers would probably be hard-pressed to come up with a legitimate business reason for requiring full access to an employee’s private social networking profiles. It seems as though employers are taking advantage of desperate job seekers who would rather surrender their rights to privacy than miss out on a job opportunity.

Should employers have access to my private information?

With today’s technology and increasing connectedness, there is a very fine line between our professional and personal lives. This is why we go through the painstaking process of perfecting our privacy settings on our social networking profiles. We know that current and potential employers are likely to research our online presence, but there is a difference between viewing our publicly available information and having full access to our most personal details.

While it might be uncomfortable to allow an employer to read your private messages and scan through your personal photos, this unrestricted access can actually be harmful for employers as well.

Employers are at risk for discrimination claims if:

  • The employer asks some, but not all, individuals for certain information (ie, Facebook passwords),
  • The employer discovers bits of personal information (e.g. race, religion, sexual orientation, medical conditions or political views) that are typically made available on protected Facebook profiles or in personal conversations.

What should I expect from an employer regarding social networking privacy?

Some companies that have been pressured to cease requesting employees’ Facebook passwords have resorted to “shoulder surfing,” or having an individual log in to their account and click through messages, photos and wall posts while the employer watches. In some cases, student athletes have been required to “friend” a coach or other authority figure as a means of monitoring activity.

Basic background checks are a standard practice in recruitment, and every company should have a formal social media policy that includes guidelines for conducting social networking screening. Ideally, these checks should be carried out by a third party, and certainly not by the individual in charge of making the hiring decision. All employers should reveal their social media monitoring policy to employees, including the use of software that takes screen snapshots of login information.

Is it legal for an employer to ask for my Facebook password?

There are no specific laws to protect the social networking privacy of employees and job applicants, though lawmakers in some US states have introduced bills to prohibit employers from requesting Facebook passwords. In the UK, the Computer Misuse Act 1990 offers some protection to employees. According to the Act, it is an offence to use a computer to gain access to data you are not authorised to use.

Unfortunately, many employees are willing to fork over their passwords in order to keep their jobs, thus “authorising” the employer to access their personal information. However, this practice still constitutes a direct violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. According to Section 4.8 of Facebook’s policy, “You will not share your password…let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.”

What can I do if I’m asked to give up my password?

Do not be afraid to defend your rights to personal social networking privacy. Ask about the company’s social media policy. Express your concerns about your legal rights, quote Facebook’s official policy, or just say no. If all else fails, ask yourself: do you really want to work for a company that doesn’t respect your right to privacy?

Related: How To Protect Your Online Reputation (Infographic).

Adriana Costello is an MSc Management and HR student at the London School of Economics. She blogs regularly for Link Humans and Jumpstart:HR as a HR and Social Media Intern. Follow Adriana on Twitter @AdrianaTereza.

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