What Does an Employer Really Need to Know About an Applicant?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the relatively new practice of U.S. employers asking job applicants to provide their Facebook login information.

Besides the passwords to social media accounts, employers have been known to “shoulder surf” while an applicant logs into his/her account, or request an applicant to befriend a human resource manager, letting him have access to their formerly private information.

I can see the employers’ reasoning: People tend to loosen up more online than they do in person. They’ll post pictures and comments they might never voice aloud, and they’ll show their “real” selves.

But that’s not true in all cases. Some of us are mighty selective about what we know will follow us, maybe forever.

Everything I’ve read suggests this practice is more common with industries where applicants need to pass a background check. Those employers are hoping a quick (or not so quick) peek into a Facebook account will reveal things about the applicant they’re not able to ask — things like age, race, religion, and gender — as well as activities like drug and alcohol use.

I can see why they’d want such information. With so darn many job applicants these days, anything that helps to narrow down the contenders would be helpful.

But applicants rightfully are concerned. After all, most social media accounts require a person signing up NOT to share their login and passwords.

Applicants fear that refusal to hand over such information will be grounds for employers to toss them out of the applicant pool. How can they feed their family and clothe their children unless they have a job?

Shouldn’t there be a division between what one does at work and what one does off work?

Legislators think so.

In fact, some states (Maryland and Illinois, for example) are considering passage of laws preventing employers from asking applicants for privacy information. Two Senators — one from New York, one from Connecticut — have asked the U.S. Justice Department to determine whether this practice is against the law.

I don’t do Facebook (despite constant urgings from friends to the contrary!). Nor am I looking for a job, thanks to being self-employed.

While I don’t have a dog in this fight, I am disturbed by the issue. It seems that attacks on an individual’s right to privacy are growing and relentless. Shouldn’t there be a better way to weed out unacceptable job applicants without resorting to violating their privacy?

Help me out here. What do you think?