Editorial: Job applicants shouldn't have to allow entry to Facebook

April 1, 2012 

Employers are well within their rights to check references, ask probing questions and require applicants to take drug tests.

But there are limits to how deeply companies and public agencies ought to be allowed to dig. Strong-arming job-seekers for their Facebook passwords to see private profiles crosses the line.

The question now is whether there needs to be a law to stop it. Some legislators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., believe so.

State Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, has introduced a bill that would prohibit employers, public or private, from requiring or requesting in writing a prospective employee to disclose user names or passwords for personal social media accounts. The measure would also protect students applying to public and private colleges, and would allow lawsuits under the state's anti-discrimination laws.

It's possible that Senate Bill 1349, which is scheduled for its first committee hearing the week of April 9, will be amended to include a fine for violations as well.

While it's not clear how widespread the practice has become, the intent of the bill is to nip it in the bud. Applicants could, of course, just say no and go elsewhere. But in this job market, they could be easily coerced.

The California Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on the bill, but has cautioned employers to "think twice" about demanding Facebook passwords. Peeking at an applicant's page could reveal his or her religious affiliation or sexual orientation – topics that interviewers are barred from asking about. Or it could show that a job-seeker is pregnant – and if the employer doesn't hire her, that could open up the company to a discrimination lawsuit, the chamber says.

In Washington last week, House Republicans blocked a measure to prevent employers from asking applicants and current workers for their social media passwords. But Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York are drafting legislation to be introduced when Congress returns in mid-April. They also asked the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department to investigate the practice.

The impetus for the politicians was an Associated Press article published in The Bee and other media in March. It said seeking access to Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts and other social media is more prevalent among public agencies, especially those in law enforcement. Companies also have asked applicants to "friend" human resource managers so they can look around.

Facebook, itself, is warning employers that demanding passwords is an invasion of privacy that opens them to legal liability. The social media giant also is threatening legal action against those who violate its long-standing policy against sharing passwords, and says it will work with policymakers to safeguard users' privacy.

This is another consequence of the social media world we live in. The law, and commonly accepted behavior, is often slow to catch up.

Businesses would be wise to take the chamber's advice and refrain from this practice. If they persist, it's that likely lawmakers will make that decision for them.

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