Facebook, Privacy & Employers

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There has been a minor controversy regarding employers requiring (or “requesting”) job candidates and employees to hand over access to their Facebook accounts. Those favoring this argue that employers need to know certain things about job candidates and employees and hence this is justified. Those opposed to it tend to argue that this violates privacy rights.

On the one hand, it can be argued that employers should be allowed such access. After all, Facebook accounts can provide a wealth of information about employees and candidates that would be very useful to the employer and this usefulness could be taken as justifying the intrusion. For example, a company could learn a great deal about a candidate whose posts show that he is a racist. As another example, a company could learn important information about an employee who posts photos of herself wasting time at work and stealing office supplies.

In cases in which the job involves matters of security (such as law enforcement), then having such access would seem to be even more reasonable. After all, a prison hiring guards would certainly want to know whether a candidate had photos of himself flashing gang signs.

On the other hand, there seem to be some rather good reasons against granting such access to employers. The most obvious is that the mere fact that the information would be useful to the employers does not entail that they have a right to access it. After all, access to candidates’ and employees’ personal conversations, journals, diaries, real-world photo albums, personal phone records, home, friends and so on would be very useful to employers. However, it would seem absurd to say, for example, that my university has a right to go through my house looking for information that might be useful to it. As such, it would seem that the employer’s need to know is not overriding. Naturally, there can be legitimate exceptions, such as during legal action. If I were, for example, stealing computers from my university, then the police would certainly have a right to search my house for the stolen goods-once they got a warrant, of course.

It might be objected that Facebook is not the same as these things. After all, it is online and it is intended to be a social network. As such, it is acceptable for employers to have access to these accounts. In reply, being online and being a social network does not entail a right to access. After all, personal email is online, but this hardly gives my employer the right to read my personal email.  The fact that Facebook includes personal messaging makes this a rather exact analogy. In regards to the social network access, Facebook explicitly allows users to control access-just as people can control access in the actual world. My employer does not have the right to listen in when I am running with friends or to send an agent to observe my gaming. As such,  they should not have these rights in regards to Facebook. In short, given that employers are not entitled to access to such information avenues in the real world it would follow that they are not entitled to that information merely because it is on Facebook. There is simply no relevant difference between the two and the burden of proof rests on those who would claim otherwise.

It might be countered that people do have a choice whether or not to hand over access. After all, they could refuse and not get the job or refuse and be fired. However, this is rather obviously not much of a choice. After all, a candidate or employer who is asked to trade sexual favors for a job has the choice to refuse. However, it would be absurd to say that this entails that employers can thus request sexual favors. Likewise, employers would not seem to have the right to require candidates and employees to hand over access to their Facebook accounts.

It might be countered that people who have nothing to hid have nothing to worry about. This is, of course, a fundamentally flawed reply. The mere fact that I have nothing to hide does not entail in any way that my employee should thus have the right to have access to my information. After all, I am in pretty good shape, so I have nothing to hide under my clothes. This does not entail that my employer gets to see me showering. I also have nothing to hide in my email or my house, but this hardly entails that my employer should be able to just read through my emails or wander about in my house at will.

A somewhat interesting point worth considering is that employers screened candidates and kept an eye on employees long before Facebook existed. While Facebook does provide one-stop privacy violation shopping, it would seem that the methods used before Facebook should suffice. There is also the matter of people who do not have Facebook accounts. Should they be required to get accounts so that their employers can check them?

As a final point, the state usually has to go through a legal process to get into private information (although the war on terror has changed this). As such, it might seem rather odd that employers can act with greater power than the state. Interestingly, in the United States employers often seem to have more power over peoples’ lives than the state-and this is often endorsed by the same folks who claim to be for liberty. However, we should be just as much on guard against impositions against liberty by employers as by the state.

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  1. If an employer wants to see more of what you do on Facebook than they could ask you to accept a friend request but to ask for your login details is incitement to violate the Facebook terms of service and Facebook have made clear their disapproval of this practice. I would never employ anyone who complied with such a request, it simply proves that they can’t be trusted.

  2. Ian,

    Some companies have encouraged or required employees to friend managers for just that purpose. I can see why companies would want to do that, but I am also opposed to companies forcing employees to do that. After all, this would seem to be analogous to requiring employees to invite managers to their personal events, such as weddings, birthday parties and so on.

  3. The simple answer is to never ever tweet or have a facebook page.

    I suspect if I were interviewing someone for a job the mere fact of having a facebook account would probably mean they wouldn’t get the job.

  4. This is exactly the sort of oppressive use of private power that we need governments to constrain. There are limits to how much laws can be enforced, of course, but such intrusion by employers into people’s private lives can be discouraged to an extent by employment/labour relations law. Meanwhile, we just need to do what we can to make employers who do this socially despised.

  5. Intrusions into privacy such as these rely on the idea that how someone acts in private is a good predictor of how they will act in public.

    But, this is unreliable.

    For example, my job requires me to be cheerful and energetic whenever interacting with someone, however on my own time I am surly and reserved. My private comportment is, in this case, a terribad predictor of my work performance.

    It’s a big like farting in front of the computer but holding it in at the dinner table.

    I think we put too much emphasis on whether people are “naturally” a certain way when all that matters is whether or not they can act they way we need them to, regardless of whether it comes naturally or artificially.

  6. Asur,

    Good points.
    As you note, people often behave very differently in private than they do at work. My work persona is somewhat different from my private persona as is my behavior. For example, my mode of dress differs-I teach in professional clothes, but at home I’m usually in shorts and a running t-shirt. I also know, as most people do, folks who behave radically different at work than when they are just hanging out with friends-this is hardly surprising since most work environments are stultifying and oppressive. 🙂

    That said, a person’s private behavior can provide some indication of their work behavior-but it is generally a weak inference, as you noted.

  7. Russell,

    True. In the States, employers often have considerable power over employees and are able to spy on them and regulate them to a degree that would be considered authoritarian if done by the government. There have been some interesting arguments that employers are the main agents of conformity in the US, which seems rather reasonable.

  8. Leo Smith,

    True-there is the option of just not being part of the social network. That said, most folks with internet access use Facebook. My parents are on it (my dad uses it mainly because his hometown historical folks have a very active group) as are most people I know. I use it mainly because about half of the race photos from the races I do are posted there and I need to keep my ego in check. 🙂

  9. I have listed the company i work for as my employer in my profile. This week it came to my attention from my union pres. That by simply listing them as my employer the human resource dept receives all posts and comments that i make on facebook. This disturbs me GREATLY! Not that i have made inappropriate posts or comments, but that they have the access without my knowledge or approval! I was informed that a well known termination was caught using that individuals comments/posts from their facebook page! It was a deserved dismissal and would have been found out regardless of facebook but i believe this is a flagrant violation of my rights! I have never liked their page or friended them, simply listed them as my current employer! WOW!

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