While pre-employment screenings have long looked into an individual’s criminal history, recently employers have become increasingly interested in how applicants handle their personal finances and even social life. In fact, it has become common practice for employers to check an applicant’s social media accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter, for any red flags. Applicants have come to expect this and have consequently learned to adjust their privacy settings appropriately before beginning a job search.
However, according to a report first publicized by BusinessWeek, some employers, such as the Virginia State Police Department, have started to require applicants to actually log in to their Facebook and other social media accounts during the interview process, providing potential employers unprecedented access to information about an applicant’s personal life, including private messages and pictures.
It is mostly police departments and government agencies that have been called out for using these extreme screening tactics. However, there are concerns that this could become a more widespread practice even among private sector employers. Still, some employers argue this is in line with other background check procedures and reference checking, but others argue it takes pre-employment screenings too far and could, in fact, be illegal. So when does necessary precaution in screening applicants become an invasion of privacy?
In terms of legal concerns, Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, notes that “when the government is the employer, people have the constitutional right not to be subjected to unreasonable searches,” according to BusinessWeek. She goes on to clarify that prying into an applicant’s personal accounts, beyond what is part of the public record, could be considered a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. Others also note that this type of screening could lead to a variety of unfair discrimination issues based on familial status, political leanings, or sexual orientation. While typically, employers know what type of personal questions they should refrain from asking in an interview, it may be hard to avoid this information when trolling through an individual’s personal photos and conversations. So the question remains — is it too much to ask for employers to acknowledge that applicants have private lives that should, in fact, remain private?
Still others contend that nothing about the Internet, or especially Facebook, is private, and applicants should ensure all their online activities put forth a positive image regardless of privacy settings. However, one could then argue that if an applicant still has the opportunity to tailor their cover letter, resume, and appearance during the interview process to put forth the best image possible, they should have the same ability to use their privacy settings to shape their image on social media sites. The debate is likely to continue, though rumblings of the potential for discrimination and privacy lawsuits may cause some employers to exercise more restraint when screening applicants going forward.