• In Virginia, a sheriff’s department has asked applicants to “friend” background investigators
  • In Illinois, another sheriff’s office has asked applicants to sign into Facebook during interviews so that the hiring manager can screen their account.

Stories such as this are becoming commonplace in the media, with examples of colleges, police departments, correctional facilities and other public and private agencies asking for access.  Many claim that they only have the public’s safety and welfare in mind and that the hiring of dangerous or untruthful individuals in a public safety position can have dire consequences.

In some of these cases, applicants have refused stating that they would not work for a company/agency that sought personal information.   But in many (if not most) cases, applicants have agreed because they needed or wanted the job.

The issue for candidates centers on privacy; however, there can be severe legal repercussions for employers too.

The ACLU has stated that asking for access to someone’s personal social media accounts goes too far, and it is akin to asking for someone’s house keys, reading their mail or even bugging their apartment/phone.

For employers, asking applicants for their personal login information opens the door for more liability than necessary, and it gives candidates reasons to claim discrimination in the hiring process.  For example, if you find out that the applicant is of a certain protected group by viewing the content on the applicant’s social media accounts and you do not hire him/her, you may open yourself up to a discrimination claim.

In addition, as the employer you may become liable for the applicant’s online behavior.   For example, if a company monitors a worker’s social media accounts, but misses or ignores signals that something criminal or harmful might happen, then the employer can become liable.

So avoid any additional risk.  Social media accounts with applied privacy settings are private.  Remember, in many cases, information found on these social media sites often lack any factual basis and can be misinterpreted when taken out of context.  By demanding an applicant’s social media passwords and reviewing their private profiles, employers are opening themselves up to the liability of denying a candidate to interview for a job based on information that, even if correct, has little bearing on the ability to succeed at the job.

Employers will continue to look at applicants’ LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts, but if the profile has been made private it can indicate sound judgment, conscientiousness and a level of discreteness that will make for a good, solid employee.  Isn’t that what all employers look for?

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*NOTE:  A full color PDF of this blog is available to download.