I was a little surprised that it is happening in our small town...in small, non-profits; those that would pride themselves on empowerment and equality. I'm told, as we speak,it appears on at least one local agencie's job application and is required that you give the password information as a condition of hire.
Jobs are hard to find. Employers know this, and employees know this. That doubly upsets the balance of power. If you rock the boat you won't get hired or could get fired. So employers push the envelope (some, certainly not all), and employees often knuckle under even if they aren't comfortable or don't think it's right.
In some instances, I don't think employers are thinking or realizing there are potential problems with this new "big brother" monitoring of people's private lives. They see it as the latest, greatest screening tool. While I understand the strong desire to avoid problems, turnover and to hire the best employees one can, I don't think this is a good idea.
Some arguments can be "If you don't have anything to hide, why would you care?", and "People shouldn't post anything publicly that could get them in trouble, so they shouldn't object." I sort of felt that way, until I started reading some of the implications, and now I feel differently. In the back of my mind I just thought "Over my dead body will I give an employer access to my social networking pages." I'm a rebel about intrusive authority. I wouldn't let them listen to my private voice mail, look in my windows, read my mail, or let them have the passwords to my personal email accounts either. Further, I am also interviewing my prospective employer. Do I want to work for someone who thinks this is OK? Nope, I do not. It does not bode well for micromanagement in the work place, or fair and ethical treatment. But I understand we are currently in a market of scarcity and I may not feel I have the power to let a job slip through my fingers...or don't have the luxury.
Here is a list of things it is illegal to ask on job applications and in interviews. After you read that, ask yourself, how many of those things can be found on nearly everyone's social networking pages?
Let's say, as an employer, I'm of one religion and you are of a religion I find offensive (these days you could probably fill in the blank with Muslim or Wiccan). I can't ask you about it as part of the interview or application process, but what if I see photos of you at a baptism or wedding where your religion is clear? Or what if you're gay and I can't ask you that, but I see photos of your family? Nothing X rated, just normal family photos. And I can't ask you if you have children or what your marital status is, but I can easily glean it from the average, even most conservative of pages. Potentially, I could look at your FB page, find things about you that are illegal to discriminate against you for, and do just that without ever having to prove it. That's a problem.
Recently, in our small, rural community, the mayor made derogatory comments about gays on his FB page. It wasn't completely clear if it was his private page or his personal page and he clearly had very little working knowledge of how to set his privacy settings. Soon screen captures of his comments made it to some national publications. Nobody was running against him but it sure was a bit sticky for him. Electronic information is never fully private.
Where does an employer's right to monitor or direct behavior or morality end? If I can do my job, and I have not violated any of the terms of employment in the company handbook, is what I do on my personal time the business of the employer? Do we want to allow people to micromanage before an issue is even an issue?
I'm of the opinion that an employer gets enough of my time and energy and what I do when I leave my job is my business. I think what employers need to do is to beef up their employee handbooks to spell out what behavior is and is not acceptable and it needs to all be legal and within the scope of the type of job, the moral environment etc. If I agree to your LEGAL terms of conduct, and then violate them, THAT is when it is your business. Not before and not just if you don't like this or that.
Should people avoid posting stupid things on their social networking sites? Yes. Should professionals have tighter privacy settings and limit access and be reasonable and careful? Yes. But is that all a personal choice or does my employer have a say? If so, how much say? Can he/she access my social networking sites to glean information that is part of a person's social life with friends and family but not legal for them to ask in job applications or interviews? How could it be?
Here are a few interesting links that are discussing this very issue. Employers: if you are currently doing this, STOP. It's only a matter of time before it is illegal, so WHY not just stop now?