Can prospective employers ask for my Facebook password?

Question: I'm a recent college graduate, and I'm applying for jobs at advertising firms. During an initial phone interview, the hiring manager asked me to provide my Facebook user name and password. He said they routinely request this information from applicants, so they can avoid hiring anyone whose online persona might prove embarrassing to the firm or its clients. I can understand Googling me, but do they really have a right to look at my private photo albums and online chats with my friends?

Answer: It's very common for employers to search for applicants online as part of a hiring background check. Recruiters, headhunters, and employers often check out what applicants have posted publicly, to make sure they don't hire someone whose online presence reveals potential problems. Applicants who have posted sexually explicit material, images that are threatening or violent, or scenes of heavy drug and alcohol use should not be surprised to find themselves on the receiving end of a rejection letter.

Like your interviewer, employers say that they screen online posts to avoid public embarrassment. This makes sense, for applicants whose posts can be read by anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. It's also hard to argue that these posts are "private," if they are available for anyone to see.

But what of applicants who have taken steps to protect their posts by using the available privacy settings and hiding content from those who aren't online "friends"? If your online material can be viewed only by using your password or becoming your Facebook friend, there doesn't seem much risk that a client will stumble on it accidentally. And, this type of snooping can violate privacy rights.

In the last few years, a number of states have weighed in on this hot topic. More than ten states now prohibit employers from asking employees or applicants for their social media passwords. (You can see which states have these laws -- and which states are considering adopting similar protections -- at the National Conference of State Legislatures'  Employer Access to Social Media Usernames and Passwords page.)

State enforcement mechanisms for these laws vary. You are probably more interested in finding a job than in filing a lawsuit or complaint, however, so here are a couple of practical steps you can take to protect yourself:

  • Clean up your online act. Take a close look at the information you make available to the public. Google yourself and look at your public social media profiles: Do you see anything that might give a potential employer pause? Get rigorous about using available privacy settings. And this might be a good time to just delete those photos of college hijinks.
  • Know your rights. If your state prohibits employers from requesting or using passwords, read the law. If a potential employer asks for your password again, explain that this is illegal. These laws are quite new, so many employers are likely not aware of them. You'll be doing other applicants a service by spreading the word.
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