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Blog/Career Advice for Life Science Professionals

Facebook Passwords, An Executive Recruiter’s Opinion

Everyone has seen the news recently about some employers wanting candidates’ Facebook passwords to learn more about them before hiring. (See BusinessWeek’s “ Big Brother Wants your Facebook Password”. I, like others, was appalled to read this bit of news. I run a biotechnology and pharmaceutical executive search firm, Clark Executive Search, and I know a thing or two about the hiring process. But I have never heard of anything so invasive as this, short of drug screening tests, which are a necessary evil.

First of all as an executive recruiter I never ask about personal matters, like what would be available to me if I asked for Facebook passwords, because most of the questions are illegal. I can’t ask about whether a candidate is married, their age, race, religion, or if they are pregnant. My clients also make sure I don’t allow my candidates to have their date of birth, social security number, race, religion or a even picture on their CV or resume. All this is so a candidate is treated equally in the hiring process. I let my clients do whatever background checks they want and I don’t get involved. The most I do is “google” a person to see what shows up and standard references. But for my candidates the google results are just a bunch of scientific papers and meetings the candidates have attended. This is because I am a biopharmaceutical executive recruiter and all my candidates have high degrees and are widely published. Most of my scientist candidates don’t have wild lives…or do they?

So how can some employers get away with demanding Facebook passwords? Because they can and they know frightened job candidates, who are desperate for a job, will do anything required of them to land that job. The employers play on the candidates’ fear. This is much the same as the reason a pregnant woman will not reveal she is pregnant while interviewing, even though she knows the employer can’t legally not hire her for a pregnancy. But out of fear she will hide the fact anyway. I see it happen all the time.

Imagine a scenario where an employer asks two nearly identical candidates, in terms of background and experience, to supply their Facebook passwords. One person will gladly hand over the passwords because he has nothing too raunchy on his Facebook page anyway and he really wants the job. The other candidate says “no” to the request either because of the morality issue or because they really do have something nasty they wish to hide. Which candidate will get the job? Certainly the one who gave the passwords. The employer can say he chose this candidate because he was better in this skill or whatever, but bottom line it really means he got what he wanted with the first candidate who complied willingly.

Fortunately Facebook said they would not go along with this little game and would even take legal actions against employers. And our lawmakers are starting to look into the matter. (See the Gizmodo post, “ Facebook Tells Users Not to give Passwords to Employers as Senate Prepares Anti-Snooping Bill”. But it is not just employers who want the passwords. State agencies and universities are demanding the information too according to this article by msnbc: “ Govt. agencies, colleges demand applicants’ Facebook passwords”. So there is a lot of work to do to ensure our privacy.

I think the legality of this whole Facebook passwords issue will be worked out eventually. But until that happens, people should be cautious about what they place online. You never know when something will come back to haunt you. Be aware that even without passwords employers and executive recruiters can find out a lot about you. If you are on twitter or google +, we can read your posts or tweets. From my posts I could quickly learn about myself that I am a grandmother, liberal democrat, small business owner, lover of science, sailing, and heath topics. My running stats are even published online. There isn’t much to hide really. But that extra step of asking for a person’s passwords is just too invasive and I believe unethical. Creepy. I don’t want to know everything about the people I work with, frankly. Keep your passwords to yourself. And be sure you have them in a safe place. I use a password organizer called 1Password.