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News broke last month of recruiters requesting the Facebook login details of job candidates in order to screen profiles prior to offering them a position. The news set off a firestorm of controversy about what recruiters had the right to ask for. The debate soon broadened with news reports that a teaching assistant was fired by her employer for not allowing them access to her Facebook profile. This rapid progression of controversy has prompted some states to sponsor bills that would make such requests illegal.

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What’s driving this invasive trend is the perceived importance of what gets posted on social media when it comes to evaluating a new hire or current employee. It stems from a study published earlier this year that claimed a glance at someone’s Facebook profile was a better indicator of future job success than more traditional personality tests.

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The practice of screening what’s publically available when selecting a job candidate is far from new. It’s standard practice to do research on a candidate via their social media profiles, be they on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking platform. A 2011 survey by social media monitoring service Reppler found that 91% of recruiters reported using social networking sites to evaluate job applicants.

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So is requesting Facebook access any different than requesting access to someone’s email account? Browsing a public profile is worlds apart from requesting access to that which the individual has expressly denied the public access to. Facebook has already stated that such request from employers undermines privacy and security policies. They went on to say that Facebook would be working to protect its users private information by engaging lawmakers and pursuing legal action, including “shutting down applications that abuse their privileges.”

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There’s also the fact that recruiters who are engaging in this practice open their organizations to litigation. Since an individual’s Facebook profile will likely reveal information such as their age, race, gender, national origin or disabilities, there’s not a lot of grey area when it comes to the discrimination potential of requesting access to their profile – which is akin to asking for that information outright in an interview.

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“We don’t think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords, because we don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” Facebook chief privacy officer Erin Egan said in a statement. “But it also may cause problems for the employers that they are not anticipating.”

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It’s clear that the temptation is incredibly high to pry into someone’s Facebook account, but ethically and legally the best course of action for recruiters is to resist that temptation and ensure that their relationship with the employee gets off on the right footing.

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Adi Gaskell is Head of Online at the Process Excellence Network

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