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What You Need to Know about Shoulder Surfing and Facebook Password Requests from Employers

Some surprising new job seeker screening practices have been in the media recently: shoulder surfing, force friending, and requests for Facebook passwords. What do you need to know?

Some surprising and controversial new job seeker screening practices have been in the media recently: shoulder surfing, force friending, and requests for Facebook passwords.

Shoulder surfing refers to an employer asking a candidate in an interview to log in to his or her Facebook account so the HR team can screen friends-only postings for lurid party photos, questionable activities, drug use or racial/religious/gender slurs that might be revealed in a job seeker’s private online life.

Force friending is a growing practice among college athletic departments where administrators require players to friend them in order to keep tabs on potential non-compliant activities by their NCAA athletes.

And some types of employers, particularly law enforcement agencies, have been requesting the Facebook password of a job seeker, right on the job application. As intrusive as one might find these practices from a privacy and free speech perspective, there seems to be no hard and fast law preventing them — for now. Legal experts agree that employers are skating on thin ice in demanding access to employee or applicants’ personal social media accounts, and ACLU-backed legislation is in the works in several states.

NE Ohio Employers Not Asking – Yet
I’ve heard no reports of any of these social media screening practices occurring at NE Ohio employers, and an Associated Press article in the March 21 Plain Dealer did not cite any Cleveland-area companies asking for this information. It’s no secret that companies do screen candidates’ social media sites that are available for anyone’s eyes (such as their public Twitter, Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn pages) to look for any red flags, and to calibrate information from a resume or interview with one’s public self-promotion on the web. But both job seekers and employers should be aware of this latest tactic to obtain private information that could impact a candidate’s chances at landing a job.

“Candidates always have a choice not to share information,” explains Sonya Weiland, president of WeilandWorks Consulting, an HR outsourcing consultancy, “but what message are you sending by denying someone access to your online profile? It may affect their ability for a second interview.” By now, every job seeker should know that if one puts a comment or a photo on the internet, and think it’s hidden, it can be forwarded by a friend to thousands of strangers around the globe in an instant. I’m constantly amazed at the number of working adults who can’t restrain themselves from uploading photos of every alcoholic beverage they ever sat behind, which adds nothing to their professionalism or maturity quotient. If the goal is to look like a 19-year-old, still thrilled to be in a room with beer, then keep posting these TeenBeat, frat house pictures of one’s liquid best friends.

Weiland agrees, adding that “discretion and professionalism are always valued by employers. Your brand and image can be severely damaged by derogatory comments or photos.” On the one hand, if a candidate wants the job, he or she is not likely to decline to reveal his or her social media pages. However, Weiland says she “warns employers against such drastic measures during an interview. The tactic seems extreme and distrusting, and not the best way to start an employment relationship.” Adds Cindy Beresh-Bryant, president of HR Solutions by Design, an HR consulting firm, “You may decide that a college or employer that is asking you to do something that you believe is morally out-of-bounds, is not the right fit for you. Feel good about that, and move on to one that is the right fit.”

Force Friending – Big Brother or Compliance Helper?
Force friending seems to have started at the collegiate level, with athletic departments seeking to keep tabs on any under-the-table payoffs given to NCAA athletes or other compliance infractions. There is no doubt that receiving a sports scholarship comes with strings attached, as well as strict rules, on the athlete’s part – and athletic department visibility into a player’s Facebook posts and friends could perhaps quash a potential NCAA infraction before it occurs. The University of North Carolina was an early adopter of this practice, outlining its force friending policy in its 2011-2012 Student Athlete Handbook on page 8 – but UNC’s social media monitoring caught the attention of the NCAA, which just ruled in a March 12, 2012 hearing of UNC infractions, that universities have no blanket duty to monitor social networking sites of student athletes – but that monitoring efforts would be appropriate if the institution becomes aware of an issue, such as reasonable suspicion of rules violations, that might be resolved in some part by reviewing information on a site.

“Applicants for anything – college, athletics, jobs, etc. always have a choice as to whom they allow access to their personal information,” explains Beresh-Bryant. She says “while it may be legal for interviewers to ask for private social media access, that doesn’t mean it’s right. In our current climate of moral relativism, it’s sometimes hard to know how or why to say NO. Applicants should remember the interview process is designed to help both parties determine if there is an appropriate fit which is based on education, experience, and values.” She adds that “there is a talent war going on – employers and schools have to re-think if they’re willing to ultimately lose strong candidates with impeccable credentials” simply because they can – for now – push the envelope and ask to peer inside the private social networking of applicants.

Again, while I’ve not been made aware of any NE Ohio companies or institutions seeking access to private online postings, the flurry of news about force friending and shoulder surfing is a sobering reminder for those who believe “I have total control over the privacy of my social media.” It’s unwise to think that privacy settings prevent other unintended recipients, such as potential employers, from getting access to your private posts, because people you’ve entrusted with your private reputation can forward and share your postings all they want. And with Facebook changing its privacy settings so frequently, it’s simply common sense to only post what you’d want your rabbi, priest, pastor, neighbors, grandma, customers or boss to see, anyway.

Government Entities Asking Candidates for Private Data, Too
Who else is requesting candidates to reveal private social networking content? Some cities, counties and states, such as Maryland’s Department of Corrections, the city of Bozeman, Montana, and sheriff’s departments in Illinois and Virginia have been asking for Facebook passwords or force friending to ensure that potential corrections or court/law enforcement officers were not involved in criminal or gang activity, or illegal behavior. After much negative publicity, both Maryland and Bozeman stopped their prior practice of asking for passwords, and governmental entities are now moving to shoulder surfing, which eliminates the sharing of a password but does allow visibility into private social networking posts if a candidate complies.

Legislative Attempts to Curtail Access
In both Illinois and Maryland, legislation has been introduced that limits an employer from asking for or accessing private social networking pages. During this year’s legislative session, Maryland Senate Bill 433 and House Bill 964 were introduced and if passed they will prohibit employers from requiring employees and applicants from disclosing their social media user names and passwords, which the ACLU is aggressively supporting. And in Illinois, House Bill 3782 would make it unlawful for an employer to ask for an employee’s or prospective employee’s password. In truth, Facebook’s own terms of service says that users cannot share their password, and doing so is a violation of use.

Weiland summarizes that “one will see from case history and articles that this is still a very gray area. Personally I believe in a balance of protecting the company and protecting the rights of employees/applicants.” And Beresh-Bryant warns employers who may be considering requesting access to private postings that “while we have more candidate screening resources at our fingertips, there is no replacement for good old-fashioned, behavioral-based interviewing and background checks that are fully disclosed and separate a jobseeker’s professional and personal life.”

Readers, have you been asked in an interview or job application scenario to provide private social networking access? Your comments are welcome – clearly, practices continue to evolve in the applicant screening process, for both employers and job seekers. At the end of the day, the rule still is, if you don’t want someone to find it, don’t put it online.

Kelly Blazek shares job search and work success tips in her blog, http://kellyblazek.wordpress.com and is a frequent speaker on creating more powerful resumes and LinkedIn profiles.  A Six Sigma Green Belt, she is available for one-on-one resume review consultations and is also a manufacturing communications advisor.  Contact her at kblazek@gembacomms.com.   

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kelly Blazek March 22, 2012 at 04:14 PM
Patch Readers - a local lawyer has provided some additional insight on this topic. Jennifer Corso, an employment law attorney that represents businesses, advises against the practice. “In my opinion, while these practices may be legal, it opens the employer up to several types of employment discrimination claims and should not be practiced. It is very possible that the Facebook page would reveal information about the applicant that would otherwise be the subject of illegal interview questions.” She cites the revealing of age and race, a medical condition, religious affiliation, even comments about planning to start a family are often evident on private posts; “if that applicant isn’t selected, the employer may be put in a position to show that it didn’t rely on that private information in making their decision.”
John March 23, 2012 at 02:27 AM
I must complement you on your article and the additional comment, it was far more informative than recent sensational TV accounts. It's interesting how technology spawns a whole new vocabulary when we have plenty of existing language to describe this new employer trend - "invasion of privacy" comes to mind. Where do we draw the line, Facebook is commonly used, but people could easily set up private friend web sites or social sites like NING. Should an employer be able to ask for ALL access passwords to the web, or maybe access to your home and cloud based hard drives, or maybe they could just have you install a keylogger. All these ideas sound ludicrous, but really are closely related to what they're doing now.
Tim Torrence March 23, 2012 at 05:58 AM
If some employer was to ask me for my Facebook password I would respond as such. "I have read Facebook's terms of service and it explicitly states it is a violation of said terms to give my password to another person. It is also a violation of Facebook's terms of service to ask another person for their password. I use Facebook and I am a man of my word therefore I must politely decline to violate my agreement with Facebook." It's all there in the agreement you said you read when you signed up.
Tim Torrence March 23, 2012 at 06:00 AM
Oh one point I forgot. It is actually a federal offense to violate terms of service agreements with internet companies. It has to do with federal control of media services or something of that nature.
Alex Vandehoff March 23, 2012 at 12:14 PM
Reason number 9,219 to not have a facebook account
Jack Kelly March 23, 2012 at 03:14 PM
Facebook has now commented on this 'controversy.' Today, their chief privacy officer pretty much said the same thing the employment law attorney you cited--that if an employer discovers that a job applicant is a member of a protected group, the employer may open itself up to claims of discrimination if it doesn't hire that person. Also, Facebook is now threatening legal action.
Lori E. Switaj March 23, 2012 at 03:28 PM
Good point Tim!
John Meola March 24, 2012 at 02:10 AM
Unbelievable that a potential employer would ask me to breach the security of an online account or try to compel me to reveal private data like that. Such requests would suggest the employer has low ethical standards and may very likely treat their employees badly, all of which makes my highly unlikely to work for such a company.
Jon Gage March 26, 2012 at 03:05 PM
It is being done in NEO.Some Fire departments are asking potential new members for it in interviews.

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