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Password Please: The Place of Social Media in Hiring Decisions

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-03-25
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Recently the Internet has been all a-twitter about numerous reports of employers requesting social media passwords from prospective and current employees. Most of this activity seems to be centered around Facebook, although some cases involve other sites and services. While on the surface this practice seems a shocking violation of personal space and freedoms, there are others who would argue that valuable information concerning hiring decisions can be gained in this manner. So far, none of the stories I’ve come across have involved the public sector, but forewarned is forearmed. Let’s take a closer look at the issue; especially as it applies to public safety communications.

While there is nothing illegal about acquiring information from the web – which includes social networks – there can be some pitfalls. You have to gain access to the data in an open manner; meaning that you can’t hack somebody’s account or a third-party site to do so. Now, technically, providing your password to someone else is often a violation of Terms of Service. So, if an agency uses an applicant’s password – even with their permission – the discovery may not be appropriate.  Since the frequency of prosecution for such permissive password use has been relatively small in the past, chances are legal action would not forthcoming. But, you are still left with the “do the ends justify the means?” dilemma.

Another aspect of the arguments has to do with concerns about how data gathered might be used inappropriately. Instead of a blank piece of paper, recruiters now have before them a collage of social and visual information about their candidates. The first obvious piece of this visual data is race, and for those with gender neutral names; sex. Since some studies indicate that attractive people stand a better chance of being hired to begin with, you can now alter the finalists simply by looks alone without ever having to talk to them in person. All this creates a pretty scary place to go.

On the other hand, employers now have a valuable tool to view the real candidates. When appearing for an interview, most candidates put on their game face and weigh their answers carefully. This face-to-face conservatism is not as frequently displayed online, where many people voluntarily post an amazing number of facts that are not necessarily appropriate. Can “liking” an inordinate amount of establishments where alcohol is served be indicative of a problem that will interfere with attendance? Is this concern further reinforced if illustrated by a beer bong photo from Cancun? Are grammatically incorrect posts laced with obscenities compatible with positions involving customer contact? And what about people who say one thing in person, yet another electronically? Should a dishonest person ever be offered a job? And are we to be content with just the passwords from a limited number of services? Wouldn’t email and text messages give us an even more complete view? On the lighter side, I believe that anyone who uses either a duck face pose or a bathroom mirror self-portrait as their profile picture should be immediately removed from consideration.

But let’s take this scenario a serious step further. What if you track a candidate on Foursquare or similar services and find that his or her travels involve locations of known criminal activity and narcotic sales. Is this connection enough to warrant disqualification? How about someone who has a gang tattoo that would normally not be visible, but is clearly displayed on their home page?

Consider an applicant with a pronounced sympathy for a White Supremacist organization. What then? In real life there is a fine line between free speech and hate speak. Where is this line on the web? For the sake of argument, let’s say you come across such evidence and decide to hire this individual anyway. They make it through training and on to the floor where they outrageously mishandle a call that involves an African-American or Latino caller. For whatever reason you chose to ignore the “warning signs,” you can bet that they won’t be missed by the attorney representing the victim.  If we are going to go down a path, we had best be prepared to follow it until the end or not go there at all.

Among the calls for new legislation to specifically bar the requesting of passwords, Facebook has entered the fray; admonishing employers against this practice. Perhaps it is the iconoclast in me that, having read the disclaimers that come with every invitation I get to participate in the latest game or application, wonders out loud if this is the same Facebook with whom I share a love/hate relationship?  For the small price of giving up personal information and selling out my friends’ data, as well, I can plant imaginary crops or be blitzed and bedazzled by genuine faux jewels while baking delicious treats that I can’t really eat. Most importantly however, I can feel protected since this identical data is now safe from somebody who wants to hire me but not from someone trying to profile my interests and sell me something. In any event, despite their pronouncements, Facebook has already solved the issue of access to customer’s information. It’s called “Timeline.” Now people can’t even find their own stuff, let alone pry for someone else’s.

Our PSAP Management columnist Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.

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