So employers want Facebook passwords now. This seems like a pretty significant advancement in the privacy wars. I’d consider asking for my Facebook password something on the order of asking for a “sample” and running my genetics. I’m surprised this is even a thing, and I admit to some curiosity as to which employers are out here requesting this information.
I don’t remember my last employer asking for private details before I signed on the dotted line, so how the hell did we get here?
The Imprecise Science of Hiring
Few things matter more to a company than the people it hires. Yet, strangely, employment decisions are the subject of relatively little scrutiny. Before I sign a deal, I often speak with the opposing side multiple times and engage in a few rounds of negotiation. When it comes to hiring a person, the decision is often made after a 30-40 minute interview followed by a quick debriefing session. If I’m being honest with myself (and there’s quite a bit of science to back this up), the hiring decision is made within the first few minutes of meeting a person. They either have “it” or they don’t.
Back in the law firm days, I spent a lot of time working on recruiting for the firm. I found it pretty rewarding and it ensured I’d have at least some hand in selecting the poor souls destined to eat cold chinese takeout at 4am on a Saturday with me. Law firm interviews are a bit of a cluster#$^. Students are granted a 20 minute interview with 1-2 attorneys. On the basis of that short interaction, the interviewers are expected to narrow a field of 30-35 applicants to 2-4 “call backs.” Call backs are 3-4 hour interviews broken up into 4-5 30-minute sessions and a dinner. At the end of the dinner, you’ll either be extended an offer or you won’t.
When you really drill down, the hiring decision is made off about 5-6 people’s impressions of a person following an extremely superficial conversation covering subjects neither party particularly cares about. For the larger firms, this is effectively a $500K-$600K investment decision and has an enormous impact on the student’s future.
It’s pretty fail.
Recognizing this, people elect to bring in a bit more science into the process to give their asses some cover in case Applicant 34b turns out to have a hamster fetish. This is where things like grades, resumes, prior work experience and interview tests come in handy. Yet even then, everyone recognizes that this is a pretty poor way of going about things. No one knows what grades mean what from which schools – they have a general impression. People can transform almost any mundane task into saving the fucking world. Tests can be handy, but then you run into things like performance anxiety, poor question structuring, communication issues, etc.
Given the relatively poor tools for analyzing new applicants, it’s no surprise that people seek to supplement their understanding via Facebook trolling. Despite the distaste nepotism leaves in people’s mouths, the simple fact is that prior history with an individual in a personal capacity is one of the few ways to really understand what makes that person works. Facebook offers a shorthand to a person’s personality – it’s one of the richest repositories of psychological insight available.
Access to Facebook gives the employer knowledge of the PERSON, not the APPLICANT. It’s just too tempting to resist. But there are some serious problems with this approach.
The Two Selves
I often tell my wife that there is a Work Shawn and a Home Shawn. Home Shawn doesn’t know WTF Work Shawn does, and he has no real interest in knowing. In fact, Home Shawn thinks Work Shawn is a bit of a d-bag. Work Shawn enjoys toiling away, building relationships, analyzing game metrics and generally being a corporate character. Home Shawn likes solitude (except when hanging with his wife), playing video games and writing diatribes on the interwebs about things that don’t matter. Work Shawn and Home Shawn don’t talk. That’s why Home Shawn always says that Work Shawn’s day was “Fine.” He doesn’t know any better.
Lots of words for a simple point: personal lives can be very poor indicators of how a person might interact on a professional level. Perusing a person’s profile might give false negatives about certain behavior (a lot of friends like to joke about me getting drunk because I don’t drink), a person’s level of maturity (I’ve been known to entertain some pretty juvenile notions on Facebook) or broader life circumstances (perhaps there’s a bit of potentially problematic drama in the past that the person has already dealt with).
I often think the proper measure of an employee is their professional acumen, not the extent to which their personal existence is a train wreck. Certainly private issues can reach into the professional realm, but hoping to glean an understanding of the likelihood of that occurring from Facebook interactions seems like even more speculative science than just “going with your gut” in the first place.
Also, I can’t imagine that any employer has ever looked on Facebook and been pleased with that they’ve seen. Facebook is a repository for the detritus of a person’s life. The meaningless asides that fill a person’s day. It is not the housing for a person’s soul.
The Private Places
More than anything, I think the primary issue with an employer requesting Facebook access is one of privacy. I wouldn’t say I’m on the tin foil hat side of the privacy fence – I don’t really care that Foursquare is monitoring my location – but I do see some need for boundaries. I’m not surprised that these boundaries are being pushed during a period where the employers hold most of the leverage in the hiring market, but capitulation on this matter is unacceptable.
It essentially creates a privacy arms race. The employer seeks access to personal information, and the employee responds by scrubbing the resource. Early on in the social networking revolution, people put all manner of shenanigans on their page. Over time, it became whispered that employers were peeking in on these activities and making decisions based upon the information gathered. So people reacted by removing inappropriate pictures, making their profiles private, or deleting their accounts all together. As a result, the true value of the social network is undermined, because people no longer inhabit them as their personal selves, merely as their professional avatars.
Frankly, I’m amazed employers would even request it given the risks associated with reviewing the information. If you sign on to an applicant’s Facebook page, it’s entirely likely you’ll encounter information that would be entirely inappropriate to ascertain during an interview (sexual orientation, race, religious beliefs, etc.). Once you’ve obtained that information, it becomes much more difficult to argue that you didn’t base your hiring decision on information relating to protected classes. Tsk tsk, troubled waters ahead.
A Closing Rant
The value of the information to the employer does not create a right to the information. I feel like folks forget this as they acquire leverage – wants become imperatives become requirements.
My approach to interviewing is pretty simple: Avoid being an asshole. Somewhere an HR gremlin went aggro with some poorly conceived idea and we’ve got this mess. It’s the functional equivalent of asking to search my house and rummage through my garbage. I imagine most folks would object to a stranger making such a request. A clear transgression of the Anti-Asshole Accord if there ever was one.
JM: Yes, it does need to be called out – don’t be an asshole. Somehow this keeps getting forgotten in the for-profit frenzy. However, from an employer’s standpoint, it makes perfect sense to Google a candidate, analyze everything you can, and ping any mutual connections you might have. You’re still responsible for your public profile, and any reasonable due diligence that a prospective employer may perform.
Also, I’m not sure there’s much difference between Work Jamil and Home Jamil, other than the fact that Work Jamil filters out approximately 15% of his thoughts before they come out of his mouth.