Experts say practice is more common in other industries, warn of privacy concerns
There's been a good amount of talk recently about employers asking for the login information of job applicants. So, should those in the tech world expect the question to be asked the next time they're in an interview?
A handful of experts queried by Network World say techies actually have less to worry about compared to workers in more heavily regulated industries. Financial services and public sector government jobs, for example, may have more of an incentive to peer into a candidate's social media life as part of what some call an alarmingly more popular trend.
"The technology industry seems better than average in striking a balance between the personal and professional lives of workers," says Andrea Matwyshyn, associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Technology companies seem more open to supporting individual freedom of speech and expression, she says. There's also, she suspects, a level of comfort technology companies may have toward their employees, encouraging them to be creative, free-thinking individuals. Technology companies are in many cases creating the tools that run these social media sites, she notes.
Nonetheless, there have been increased efforts by employers in some industries to ask for the credentials to social media sites, and employees are finding ways to fight back.
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The issue is not new; in fact there have been public examples of employers asking for login information dating back as much as two years, including in Bozeman, Mont., which has since reversed its position. The Associated Press recently reported several examples of organizations asking for login credentials, mostly in the public law enforcement or financial services industries. With the focus on it, there have been moves to ban such behavior, including an effort in Illinois.
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Andrew Walls, a security, risk and privacy researcher at Gartner, calls the efforts to acquire login information of workers "a pretty egregious violation of personal privacy." Increased attention on the issue "throws gasoline on the fire in the call for more regulation" against the practice, he says.
Walls agrees that he doesn't expect such a practice would happen as much in the technology industry though. "In the tech world, if you're trying to hire someone, you probably already know a lot about the perspective employee based on public information," he says. "If anyone would know how to find it, it would be tech companies."
Using public information about potential employees is not new, and it's becoming easier for employers to get that information. There are various products on the market, including one from Kenexa named Social Source, that scan the Internet, including social media sites, to collect information about individuals. For example, an employer can create a form and the system will automatically populate certain query fields using social media profiles. For example, the software can scan the Internet and find an applicant's LinkedIn profile to pull out resume information, such as prior work experience.
Also, more employers are following perspective employees or existing workers by asking "friend" members of their company on Facebook, for example, with unrestricted rights to track the person, Matwyshyn says.
Seeking login credentials, though, is a different story, and one that some employers are averse to, says Dyke Debrie, of Kenexa, which provides software and job search tools for employers. "It kind of opens a whole Pandora's box," he says. Businesses are not allowed to use certain information including age, marital status, religious affiliation or sexual orientation to make employment decisions. Having access to a social media profile could reveal such information and Debrie says the businesses he works with don't even want to have access to the information because it can create questions about how it is used.
But some employers do want to glean into the social media lives of workers. The industries it is most common in, Matwyshyn says, are highly regulated ones, such as financial services, government and public positions or in which security clearances may be needed. Another area she's seen increased traction of social media monitoring is in customer-facing jobs and marketing positions. "From an employer's perspective, if they are putting an individual in a client or public-facing position, they way that candidate represents him or herself online could be an indication of the tone, professionalism and demeanor the individual may bring to the professional setting," she says.
Some companies feel they even have an obligation to monitor the social media habits of employees. If a financial broker has relationships with individuals or companies they are trading or advising clients of investing in, that can create a conflict of interest that the financial services firms may not only want to know about, but may be required to report and keep a record of. In response, Matwyshyn says, some financial services firms simply don't allow employees to engage in social media use.
Users that give up their login and password information, Matwyshyn says, are showing the disregard they have for personal privacy. It also demonstrates, Matwyshyn says, a power imbalance between employers and perspective employees. The more access to information job seekers give to their potential employers, they less control they have in crafting the image they want to portray to employers.
Potential employers are fighting back though and finding loopholes. Matwyshyn says, for example, individuals may create multiple social media identities, or restrict what information is shared publicly on the social media profiles. If they give up their username and password though, that control can be lost. Overall, Matwyshyn says employers using social media to track and potentially vet candidates is a concerning practice.
"In the past in real space, we've been able to carve out different identities for different contexts," she says. "In this online realm, when those different identities are all blended together and employers usurp the access to those identities, it can be an alarming trend for individuals."