A recent stir concerning the rights of American-based companies to request and receive passwords to the personal Facebook accounts of their employees or potential employees has caused waves across the online – and offline – community.
A spate of articles has examined the legal and ethical ramifications of such activities, and just where that far too thin line should be drawn. Yes, employers can peruse the public profiles of a job applicant or current employee to get a fuller picture of the person (indeed, 95% already do), but there’s the difference. Public profiles. While having an account requires you to be aware as to what sort of content you are posting, precautions can be taken. Photo albums of that craaazy Halloween party can be changed to a private setting; status updates can be made visible to 1st degree connections only. Basically, it is possible to be a social media maven and still maintain a sense of privacy.
But when employers specifically request that you hand over your password, or risk jeopardizing your job application or existing position, that sense of privacy is replaced by one of invasion. Suddenly those albums and status updates that you specifically kept out of reach become the focus of a free-for-all disclosure. “It’s akin to requiring someone’s house keys,” said Professor Orin Kerr of George Washington University.
Yet this practice is not as uncommon as we might have assumed, especially with more and more people spending time on at least one social network. “It’s a virtual character check as much as the rest of the process is a physical background check,” said a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, which adopted the practice earlier this year. Employers want to assure themselves of the character of anybody they hire, and with so much information available online, ubiquitous passwords aside, social media accounts seem to be the most obvious source of information.
Since this issue has made headlines across the United States, causing general outrage and indignation from citizens, lawmakers have stepped in and begun to take action against these activities. As of the time this post was written, Maryland has passed a law making it illegal for government employers to make such requests. Other states, including California, New Jersey and Illinois, are debating the legality of it in their state legislatures. And the Password Protection Act of 2012 was introduced into both houses of Congress in order to prohibit such disclosures on the national level.
Facebook has been at the forefront of this issue with its vehement disapproval of the practice. In fact, it is a violation of its privacy regulations to distribute personal passwords, and Facebook has threatened to sue any company which requires employees or job applicants to hand them over.
So what does all this mean for your referral program?
OK, but when it gets down to it, unless yours is a public agency in the Old Line State, nothing is illegal yet. So you can keep on asking for those passwords until Uncle Sam tells you not to, right?
Sure, it’s still legal…but you’ll be endangering the well-being of your referral program. The success and advancement of your referral program is hinged on a major component: the satisfaction of your employees – enough that they would want to recommend their peers and help fill vacancies. And no employee wants to be told to give his or her boss the keys to their private social media account. Such actions will have a negative impact on the foundations of employee loyalty and mutual respect, and can cast an overall gloom on the corporate culture. In such a setting, where employees begin to resent the demands of their superiors, feelings of disregard and indifference can fester, and employers can wave good-bye to participation in their referral programs.
And once word gets out on the street that you have been known to request passwords, your employer branding message will be threatened. Popular opinion is against the practice, and the online community will make their views heard loud and clear.
So respect your employees and potential employees, and show them that you value their privacy. Treat them with the trust and common decency that they deserve, and increase mutual loyalty and appreciation.