Brent Harris thought he had found the perfect candidate for an open position at the small passport expediting service he manages in San Antonio, Tex. After reviewing resumes and conducting interviews, Harris was about to offer the job to a young woman who seemed like a great fit for the company. He just had one more question for her.
"Can we check your MySpace and Facebook pages?"
The young woman agreed, not realizing it would cost her the job. As he scrolled through her MySpace photo album, Harris spotted a photo of the young woman and her friends "mooning" the camera. He immediately knew he couldn't hire her, even though she posted the photo two years previously. If any of the company's clients ever saw that picture, it would definitely give the wrong impression of the entire operation, Harris said.
Employers commonly use social media sites to take a more candid look at prospective employees. But some managers are taking their investigations a step further, asking job seekers to turn over their Facebook passwords or grant temporary access to their profiles during interviews.
Privacy experts, including Facebook's own chief privacy officer, universally condemned the practice last week and questioned its legality, backlash that could discourage its widespread use. But college career advisers say the incident should remind students that nothing they post online is ever really private, a consequence of social networks that can be just as advantageous as disastrous.
David Cochran, associate professor of communication at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, in Bartlesville, had never heard of an employer asking for access to social media accounts and found the news surprising. Given the choice, he would prefer not to work for a company that had such invasive policies, he said. But just as employees have a choice about where they work, employers have a choice about who they hire, he said.
"I once heard an employer say 'If I can't see your Facebook profile, I can find someone with a profile I can see,'" he said. "The fact that an employer will go to that trouble says something about the employer's very real need to identify responsible employees."
Given the likelihood that a prospective employer will at least check Facebook before making a job offer, Cochran encourages students to stop and think before they post anything: "Ask yourself 'what if someone else were to see this?' Like it or not, what you share online says something about who you are."
Amanda Espino, a human resources manager at a Tulsa-area hospital who conducts interviews for prospective employees, does not often use Facebook now to check on potential employees but she did at her previous job. Her former employer set up a Facebook account specifically for the human resource department, she said. The hiring managers mostly used Facebook as a way to find possible "off the table" references to the candidate through mutual friends, she said. Espino used the account to check candidates' personal maturity and decide whether they even qualified for an interview.
Although she would never ask a candidate for access to a social media account, especially because of potential legal ramifications, Espino encourages job seekers not to give hiring managers any reason to question what they might see on networking sites: "If you wouldn't want to have to answer a question in an interview, do not post the answer on Facebook."
Harris encourages job seekers to use Google to search for their own names, looking for anything negative that might come up when a prospective employer does the same: "If there is something you don't want people to see, do your best to clean it up as much as possible."
Gayle Anderson, a career counselor at Northeastern State University, in Broken Arrow, Okla., also advises students to be responsible with their online activity: "If you don't want your grandma to read it, then you probably will not want a prospective employer to read it." Employers increasingly tell her they ask questions involving social media more often in interviews, Anderson said. Employers specifically look for inappropriate posts, risquÃ© pictures and negative comments about an employer or another person, she said.
But they also look to see whether a candidate is involved in community activities, a positive angle students can use to their advantage. Cochran tells his students to manage their Facebook profiles in anticipation of visits by prospective employers, who evaluate all aspects of a job seeker's life. Hiring managers are looking for an authentic, sensible person with real friends, a sense of humor and a good personality, he said. They want to see evidence of discernment, responsibility and good judgement.
"There is a balance: Think about the person you want to be and build your profile in that direction," Cochran said. "But don't become a shimmery surface with no depth or soul. Be a real person with some smarts, a sense of purpose, and some wisdom."