Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Employer, university desire to monitor personal Facebook use (even ask for passwords) raises ethical, business model questions; important story in USA Today


MSNBC has reported further on the controversy of a few employers (such as the Maryland Department of Corrections) requesting applicants to share their Facebook or social media passwords, and with college athletic departments requiring student athletes to let their coaches “Friend” them so they can be monitored.  (On Twitter you can just follow someone, but the person can still unfollow himself.)

The link for the early March update to the “Redtape Chronicles” story is by Bob Sullivan here

Facebook has suggested that sharing passwords with employers could violate terms of service.  The logical implication is that an employer might demand that an applicant close a personal Facebook, social media or personal blog account as a provision of employment.  However, as early as 2000, I had written that such measures could be necessary in some management employment situations to avoid possible conflicts of interest or inducement of hostile workplace. In 2001, white papers on employer blogging policies started to appear online.  About two years ago there were reports that property insurance companies might charge higher premiums to social media users, but this trend does not seem to have continued as far as I know.

On Wednesday, March 14, USA Today has a confrontational opinion piece by Katrina Trinko, “Keep your hands off my Facebook password”, link here. Under pressure from the ACLU, the Maryland Corrections Department later changed the policy to require the applicant to sign-on during a job interview (which would seem to comply with Facebook’s TOS, as noted as a concern above).

The state of Maryland has suggested that the policy was appropriate for prison employees to ferret out gang connections. But mainstream employers may want to gauge extroversion, or the ability of an applicant to develop leads (as in the insurance business). But sociologists say there is a lot more to real business networking than just accumulating friends lists and “likes”. Employer interests in this matter may not be well founded. Employers could be concerned, though, that the tone or subject matter of a person’s online presence could drive away “real world” clients, even if original and valuable in other cultural contexts.  I’ve even wondered about this with I.T. consultants who are sent to client sites. 

Trinko argues that if employers routinely demanded the right to monitor employee personal accounts, Internet speech would be dumbed down and become useless as a personal sharing or even “social capital” tool.  That’s a good argument.  As Rachel MacKinnon noted in her book “Consent of the Networked” (Book review blog Feb. 25), employers can easily channel social media into tools of social conformity, just as overseas governments (China) do. 

Whether a person “owns” his online presence in an employment arrangement is becoming a serious question. It’s easy even to imagine copyright law implications.

Facebook and other social media companies (Twitter, Google+, even Wordpress and Blogger) would do well to network with major employers (or HR industry trade groups) to stop this problem from growing.  It could well affect growth and earnings and even Facebook’s planned IPO.

Update: March 27

There is a story in Information Week by Debra Donston-Miller, "Facebook password debate stirs deep social fears", and it was reported on NBC Washington this morning, link here.  This is seen as an employer's asking for keys to your house.  In fact, back in the early 1970s, EDS used to do "house interviews" of perspective IT employees!  The writer here views such companies as "backward". 

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