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What if an Interviewer Asks for Your Facebook Page?

SMG’s Kabrina Chang studies what is and isn’t legal in hiring

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

SMG’s Kabrina Chang suggests students say no if employers ask to see their Facebook page during an interview. Photo by Cydney Scott

Some of her School of Management students told Kabrina Chang of being asked during a job interview to log on to their Facebook page, their prospective employers hoping to mine useful information in deciding whether to hire them. “I was horrified,” says Chang, a lawyer and assistant professor of business and employment law.

No one knows for sure how many companies do this, and Maryland is the only state that’s banned it, says Chang (CAS’92). Meanwhile, firms like Social Intelligence and Reppify compile reports about, or simple scores of, job seekers, based on the applicants’ information on social networks like Facebook and activities at online sites like Craigslist and eBay, she says, for sale to corporate clients. It’s similar to credit-reporting agencies providing financial background on applicants.

Chang thinks that gathering online information, within reasonable limits, is fine; after all, an employer who hires someone who’s littered the internet with pictures of himself posing with firearms could be liable if the new employee then goes on a rampage. And she cites one study in which 18 percent of responding employers said they’ve hired people with impressive online profiles. But, she argues, the companies that asked her students for their Facebook pages on the spot crossed what should be a legal line. Chang, who has done previous research on social media, presented a paper on the topic at SMG’s second annual faculty research day recently and discussed it with Bostonia.

Bostonia: What is the “Facebook score” for employers and who developed it?

Chang: The Facebook score is the result of a study by academics at Northern Illinois University. They used a bunch of studies and personality tests to highlight five characteristics that indicate a prediction of a good employee.

What are the five traits?

Extroversion, openness to experience, emotional stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Not that many people set their Facebook privacy settings so that only friends can see it, so if an HR person or interviewer looks you up, they might be able to see more than you realize they could. Also, employers are asking at the interview either for your password or to log in during the interview. Other companies have asked applicants and current employees to friend the company.

Every company that has been questioned says, well, it’s voluntary. Of course, the reality is, you’re sitting there in an interview, and while legally you may be able to say no, it’s almost irrelevant, because you feel as though you have no alternative but to say yes.

The number of friends you have apparently speaks volumes about your narcissism and perhaps your extroverted-ness. That’s not absolutely a bad thing; if you’ve got a gazillion friends and you keep posting status updates about yourself—which is another indication of narcissism—if you’re hired for a client-facing position, that might be a good characteristic: you’re charming, you can talk. They’re looking at the types of things you post, like, “Went to Disney World for the first time.” That might be an indication of your willingness to try new things. “I read this book, it’s great.” “I went to this political rally. Have you read this article about Santorum?” They can glean a lot of things that way.

Social Intelligence adds their own descriptions of you to their report. I have a copy of a report where their characteristic of one person is “propensity for dangerousness” because there are numerous pictures of him online posing with guns and alcohol. They have blocked out everything about him except this big gun.

Why are they blocking out the guy’s picture?

To keep protected information protected. One thing I think is dangerous is that, in looking at your online footprint, employers are looking at information that they’re not allowed to ask you about in a traditional interview: your race, perhaps your national origin, perhaps your religion, your political affiliation. Social Intelligence has scrubbed all of that out of this picture. You might get this report before you ever lay eyes on the applicant; it could be that as part of the advertisement for the job, by applying, you consent to a social media report and a credit report. And companies can hire Social Intelligence and Reppify to monitor current employees also.

The Federal Trade Commission investigated Social Intelligence and said there’s nothing wrong with them; they’re another credit-reporting agency. They have to follow the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which means they have to get your consent and you can challenge information in the report, just like you could on your credit report. In my opinion, it’s so much safer for the employer to go this way than to do it on their own. You can learn a lot of useful information online; the problem is you could also learn very dangerous, prohibited information.

Should there be legal restrictions on this?

I think the restrictions on Social Intelligence and their reports are fine. I think the legal restrictions should come on employers asking applicants for Facebook pages—for your password or to log in or to friend. Companies like Social Intelligence and Reppify—I think they’re genius, the future of screening applicants.

I would advise students: sure, have a Facebook page, but make sure your privacy settings are airtight. Employers are going to look at more than you think. Make your Facebook page as clean as possible.

If somebody says in the middle of a job interview, “Log on to your Facebook page, I want to look at it”?

I would say no. But I think it unrealistic of me to tell 22-year-olds who want a job to just say no. They’re not going to feel comfortable enough to say no.

I think Facebook has a lot to lose here. Facebook has already come out and said, employers, you shouldn’t be doing this, it’s a violation of each account holder’s terms of service. I’m looking at this “tortious interference,” where you and I have a contract, and a third party induces you into breaching our contract. That’s what’s going on here. The more you and I scrub our pages, the less interesting Facebook is to you and me and all our friends. If I’m 22 and I don’t see pictures of you from spring break doing a keg stand, I don’t want to see your pictures.

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