Here’s the memo on Facebook – again

Employees aren’t the only ones who need a lesson on the boundaries of social media

By Todd Humber (todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com)

In 2009, a city in Montana drew a line in the sand employers knew, unequivocally, they should never cross. Apparently, not everyone got the memo.

To refresh your memory: Two years ago, the City of Bozeman made headlines when it asked candidates to hand over usernames and passwords to social media websites like Facebook as part of the screening process. Common sense prevailed, and the city wisely abandoned that practice.

A journalist uses the new Facebook Deals application on a mobile phone at its official launch in London. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services caused a stir when it recently asked an employee for his Facebook password before reinstating him from a leave. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Last month, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) decided to step into the limelight. It asked Robert Collins, a corrections officer returning from a leave of absence following his mother’s death, to hand over his Facebook username and password before reinstating him.

“My personal communications, my personal posts, my personal pictures, looking at my personally identifiable information, where my religious beliefs, my political beliefs, my sexuality — all of these things are possibly disclosed on this page,” Collins said in a video produced by the American Civil Liberties Union (See the video here).

DPSCS pointed out that the request was voluntary, and had not been taken into account when evaluating job applicants. It made a decision to suspend the practice of asking for social media information for 45 days in light of the fact it’s a “newly emerging area in the law.”

It’s one thing to do a Google search on a candidate. It’s quite another to ask them, even voluntarily, to hand over personal IDs and passwords. And, frankly, it’s a road employers shouldn’t want to go down. If the person didn’t get the job, for whatever reason, the employer could be exposed to a human rights complaint. If the candidate’s private Facebook account revealed he was gay, the employer might have some explaining to do in front of a tribunal as to whether or not sexuality played a role in the hiring decision.

Employers have long lamented the fact many workers don’t know the boundaries of social media and what’s inappropriate in the workplace. Employers, apparently, still have a thing or two to learn as well.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. For more information, visit www.hrreporter.com.

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