Over the past week there has been a lot of attention paid to employers requesting that job applicants hand over their social media passwords. This isn't a new story, but given the level of interest I thought I'd do a post covering off some of the gaps in the public discourse.
Some prominent Toronto lawyers have either stated that the current laws don't prohibit employers from asking for social media passwords or that the current laws sufficiently protect employees. Neither are particularly accurate assessments on the intersection of privacy, technology, and workplace law; furthermore, both fail to situate the current discussion within the wide array of problems presented by social media that are going unaddressed by the government and being exploited by employers. Let's run through a few problems that young people are encountering in the job hunt and offer a few tips for defeat unscrupulous employers.
Let's start with the biggest problem currently out there: Google searches on applicants for publicly accessible information. This is a far more pervasive and common problem. Recruiters can glean an incredible amount of information from an online search: where a person went to high-school, pictures of an applicant, family history, marital status, whether they have children, and political opinions. Google searches are clearly akin to requesting social media passwords with a far higher potential for abuse. Just consider the number of steps that Dan Michaluk outlines for conducting proper online searches, few employers are going to take the necessary steps to ensure fairness when conducting online searches as part of the hiring process.
Employers requiring social media passwords is clearly an egregious breach of privacy, human rights, and a person's dignity. There's simply is no reason why an employer operating in most industries would require access to a person's accounts prior to a position being offered. For a young person to hand over social media passwords it's akin to an adult handing over their email passwords or a home's alarm code.
Currently, workplace laws in Canada are inadequate to address the rapidly evolving technology that social media represents. Beyond this, being able to contest an online search or an employer accessing an publicly available social media account is extremely difficult to detect by an average job applicant; furthermore, even in cases where an employer requests passwords for social media website the job applicant is in a difficult position given the time, expense, and turmoil involved in contesting the actions of a potential employer.
Governments in Canada don't seem to be in any hurry to enact specific laws to prevent employers from running online searches or requesting social media passwords. The Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a statement on Facebook addressing some concerns, but it fails to acknowledge the wider problems that internet technology poses for job applicants like online background searches and more importantly it carries little legal weigh as soft law. As usual on issues that matter to young workers the Ministry of Labour remains missing in action and Minister of Labour Linda Jeffrey hasn't given any indication that she's prepared to update workplace law to reflect our interconnected reality.
So if you're a young person in the midst or at the start of a job search what are some tips? Well, given the lack of effective workplace laws to prevent employer abuses, the lack of enforcement, and high cost of legally contesting illegal recruitment techniques - you're operating in a labour market where prospective employers might request your passwords and you might have to give them up if you really want the job.
Here are a few strategies from ranging from severe to subversive: (1) you can get rid of your Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Myspace, just don't use any and prospective employers literally won't be able to find anything; (2) keep all content on your social media account ultra-clean and controversy free if you're asked to produce your passwords; (3) ghost your personal social media accounts (i.e. make them inaccessible to the public online) and create new publicly accessible employer friendly accounts that can be offered up enthusiastically when required ("Of course Ms. Human Resources, I'd love to give you access to all my social media passwords."); or, (4) tell them to go take a hike if they ask and then file a human rights complaint based on a breach of s. 5 or s. 23(2) of Ontario's Human Rights Code.
If you want more information on this topic, check out David Doorey's take on the controversy here, here, and here. I've written extensively on the problems that social media poses for workplace law, see: here, here, and here. Finally, here's an interesting video that shows just far we've come in five years, scope this: