Sensibility and Shoulder Surfing

by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman

A recent story by the Associated Press set off a wave of indignation about the practice of prospective employers demanding social networking log-in information or simply asking job applicants to open their Facebook page while the interviewer “shoulder surfs” and looks for red flags.

That indignation worked its way up to the top levels of U.S. government when, last week, two congressmen introduced a bill that would ban such practices. In recent months, lawmakers in five states have introduced similar measures.

That’s how law often works: reactive and piecemeal, a finger stuck in the dyke before the next leak appears. While this instance produced a bill in extraordinarily short order, it’s likely that the technology soon will mutate in another direction, requiring yet another law.

In many cases, these laws lag behind technological change for years or decades. In some U.S. jurisdictions, for example, there’s still no applicable law to punish someone who snoops with a video camera if the video contains no sound, because existing laws apply only to the wiretapping of audio conversations. Until recently, some online bullying cases were largely un-prosecutable because no laws had been written to prohibit actions that 15 or 20 years ago were inconceivable.

And that’s pretty much what’s happened with job-interview shoulder surfing. While no one knows the true extent of the practice (the AP story was essentially anecdotal), there isn’t any law against it yet, and the decision about the propriety of the practice falls into the realm of ethics.

Is it unethical? I say yes, but first let me make a case for the practice. Many years ago, I worked for a detective agency — not working on stakeouts in a fedora and trench coat, but sleuthing around the emerging internet and other public records repositories for due diligence research on high-level job applicants, prospective CEOs, and businesspeople seeking major investments. It was a good part-time job for me and many of my chronically underemployed (or simply underpaid) journalist friends, who suddenly found our skills in sifting data and following threads of information valued by a new and lucrative type of employer.

What we turned up was often astonishing: phony degrees, past securities fraud violations, assault charges, and so on. It wasn’t always easy to track this stuff down, and I began to feel some empathy with the person who was going to write the big check and gamble on the new person.

Additionally, there are some circumstances that would seem to warrant an intrusive search. A case in Maryland, for example, involved a corrections officer who was asked to turn over his Facebook password when he was applying to be recertified for his job. The state’s side of the story involves the claim that some applicants for corrections positions have allegiance to gangs. In the Maryland case, the state further claimed that out of about 2,600 applicants for corrections positions, eight had been disqualified in whole or in part because they were observed displaying gang symbols on photos on their Facebook pages.

Still, for the vast number of job applicants, existing procedures, including standard criminal records checks, credit bureau reports, and so forth, certainly seem intrusive enough. The idea of an employer demanding log-in information seems abusive and a sidestep of existing law and procedure governing employment.

An interviewer questioning a job candidate cannot ask certain personal questions about marital status, family, and health. But by compelling a display of a Facebook page, it’s pretty easy to determine some of that: Relationship status often is displayed on the main profile, and Facebook pages certainly will be a likely venue for photos of applicants’ children if they have any.

Does an applicant “like” a local diabetes support group? Could that be a hidden determining factor in rejecting an applicant?

An acquaintance of mine once told me of a trick that one company used to identify which job applicants had children: The interviewer would walk candidates to their cars. What seemed like a mannerly gesture was, in reality, a scan for car seats in the back of the minivan.

Is an expedition into someone’s social media so different? We can’t always ascertain motives, but in a hypercompetitive search for employment, could the private details from within a social media user’s personal boundaries be a deciding, if tacit, factor in a negative decision, even if those details technically are supposed to be off limits?

I suppose anything meant for the general public — for example, any Facebook page that is completely unrestricted — is fair game. But the fact that someone has set up boundaries and demarcations in the form of privacy settings makes the difference between reading a public profile and compelling an applicant to turn over a password analogous to reading a letter to the editor in a newspaper versus demanding someone’s private correspondence.

Finally, there’s the issue of balance of power. While prospective employers can’t force anyone to open their social media pages, how many of the increasingly desperate unemployed would have the nerve to decline such a request — or the scrambled judgment to assume that their refusal won’t make any difference?

That’s my view. What’s yours? Do you think it’s ethical for a prospective employer to demand to see an applicant’s password-protected social media pages? Use the comment boxes below — which, by the way, are open for anyone, including your current or prospective employer, to read.

©2012 Institute for Global Ethics

Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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