A Philosopher's Blog

Employer Access to Facebook

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 7, 2012
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There has been a minor controversy regarding employers requiring (or “requesting”) job candidates and employees to hand over access to their Facebook accounts. Those favoring this argue that employers need to know certain things about job candidates and employees and hence this is justified. Those opposed to it tend to argue that this violates privacy rights.

On the one hand, it can be argued that employers should be allowed such access. After all, Facebook accounts can provide a wealth of information about employees and candidates that would be very useful to the employer and this usefulness could be taken as justifying the intrusion. For example, a company could learn a great deal about a candidate whose posts show that he is a racist. As another example, a company could learn important information about an employee who posts photos of herself wasting time at work and stealing office supplies.

In cases in which the job involves matters of security (such as law enforcement), then having such access would seem to be even more reasonable. After all, a prison hiring guards would certainly want to know whether a candidate had photos of himself flashing gang signs.

On the other hand, there seem to be some rather good reasons against granting such access to employers. The most obvious is that the mere fact that the information would be useful to the employers does not entail that they have a right to access it. After all, access to candidates’ and employees’ personal conversations, journals, diaries, real-world photo albums, personal phone records, home, friends and so on would be very useful to employers. However, it would seem absurd to say, for example, that my university has a right to go through my house looking for information that might be useful to it. As such, it would seem that the employer’s need to know is not overriding. Naturally, there can be legitimate exceptions, such as during legal action. If I were, for example, stealing computers from my university, then the police would certainly have a right to search my house for the stolen goods-once they got a warrant, of course.

It might be objected that Facebook is not the same as these things. After all, it is online and it is intended to be a social network. As such, it is acceptable for employers to have access to these accounts. In reply, being online and being a social network does not entail a right to access. After all, personal email is online, but this hardly gives my employer the right to read my personal email.  The fact that Facebook includes personal messaging makes this a rather exact analogy. In regards to the social network access, Facebook explicitly allows users to control access-just as people can control access in the actual world. My employer does not have the right to listen in when I am running with friends or to send an agent to observe my gaming. As such,  they should not have these rights in regards to Facebook. In short, given that employers are not entitled to access to such information avenues in the real world it would follow that they are not entitled to that information merely because it is on Facebook. There is simply no relevant difference between the two and the burden of proof rests on those who would claim otherwise.

It might be countered that people do have a choice whether or not to hand over access. After all, they could refuse and not get the job or refuse and be fired. However, this is rather obviously not much of a choice. After all, a candidate or employer who is asked to trade sexual favors for a job has the choice to refuse. However, it would be absurd to say that this entails that employers can thus request sexual favors. Likewise, employers would not seem to have the right to require candidates and employees to hand over access to their Facebook accounts.

It might be countered that people who have nothing to hid have nothing to worry about. This is, of course, a fundamentally flawed reply. The mere fact that I have nothing to hide does not entail in any way that my employee should thus have the right to have access to my information. After all, I am in pretty good shape, so I have nothing to hide under my clothes. This does not entail that my employer gets to see me showering. I also have nothing to hide in my email or my house, but this hardly entails that my employer should be able to just read through my emails or wander about in my house at will.

A somewhat interesting point worth considering is that employers screened candidates and kept an eye on employees long before Facebook existed. While Facebook does provide one-stop privacy violation shopping, it would seem that the methods used before Facebook should suffice. There is also the matter of people who do not have Facebook accounts. Should they be required to get accounts so that their employers can check them?

As a final point, the state usually has to go through a legal process to get into private information (although the war on terror has changed this). As such, it might seem rather odd that employers can act with greater power than the state. Interestingly, in the United States employers often seem to have more power over peoples’ lives than the state-and this is often endorsed by the same folks who claim to be for liberty. However, we should be just as much on guard against impositions against liberty by employers as by the state.

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7 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 7, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Let’s try to look at things from the employer’s point of view for a moment. Employers are liable for the actions of their employees, often to the tune of millions (or, as in the case of BP, even billions) of dollars. Also, once they are hired, it is often very difficult to fire people. Given these two facts of modern life, it is obvious why employers will try to vet their potential employees as completely as possible before hiring them.

    Mike, do you see why the policies you advocate that make it difficult for employers to fire people are direct, causal factors in these intrusions on liberty?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 7, 2012 at 4:09 pm

      I can see things from the employer’s perspective-I’ve been on several hiring committees and hence have direct experience with the review and hiring process.

      In this process we do abide by legal and ethical restrictions regarding what we can ask and what sources we can use. There is, of course, a wealth of information that would be useful to the evaluation process that is not accessible to us because people have privacy rights regarding certain aspects of their life.

      As might be imagined, I did worry that some sort of disaster-in-waiting could slip past the screening process (there are, of course, horror stories about people hired to be priests or coaches who have molested children). But, the mere possibility that a person might be a problem does not warrant violating legitimate privacy rights. Naturally, I did have to undertake a confirmation process-checking references, transcripts and so on. Also, HR engages in checks as well (such as criminal background).

      As I see it, there needs to be a balance between the rights (and responsibility) of the employer and the employee. The fact that access to some information would be useful does not entail that the employer has a right to know about it. Naturally, privacy is also not all encompassing, so there are many things a potential employee would rather not be known that s/he has no right to conceal.

      I do advocate polices that make firing people difficult within reason. I am morally opposed to firing people based on unwarranted discrimination-be it because someone is seen as not being in accord with the faith of the institute that owns a school or in a case in which someone is fired solely for being a person of faith. In short, I believe in the ethical principle that firing must be for just cause. That seems, by definition, fair.

      Naturally, economic realities can provide just cause. Suppose I expand my book business and hire some people, but then people stop buying my books. Since I have no income for the business, I cannot keep my employees and thus they could be justly let go. However, if I found out that one employee lacked the true faith of the long distance runner and sacked her for violating my religious views (I am a truly devout runner), then I would be acting unjustly. After all, my running faith has no relevance to her job of, for example, designing covers for my books.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on May 7, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    “However, if I found out that one employee lacked the true faith of the long distance runner and sacked her for violating my religious views (I am a truly devout runner), then I would be acting unjustly.”

    What if you found out that she was highly active in the KKK?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm

      Interesting question. On the one hand, that would create concerns regarding racism and other matters since she would be a member of a known hate group that has been watched by law enforcement. As such, I would be legitimately worried about her values and how they would impact her interaction with other employees as well as the damage she would do to the reputation of my business. Given that the KKK has often been involved in illegal activities, I would also need to be concerned about past, present and future criminal behavior. On the other hand, if her involvement in the group had no impact at all on her behavior at work (that is, she worked professionally with my hypothetical minority employees), she steered scrupulously clear of any criminal activities, she did nothing to damage my professional reputation (for example, she did not say that I approved of the KKK) and so on, then I would have no just reason for firing her.

      To use an analogy, firing a worker would be on par with assigning a grade of F to a student. I cannot justly fail a student for what has no impact at all on the class. As such, if I had a KKK member, a New Black Panther or whatever in class, as long as they acted in accord with the rules (no burning crosses or calling me “white devil”), then they would get the grades they earned.

      • dhammett said, on May 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm

        Isn’t it more important in the long run that the “faithful” running employee fell 7K short of completing 10K?

  3. T. J. Babson said, on May 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    I think you need to add a bit of nuance to your position and acknowledge that some people are in greater need of protection than others.

    It does not bother me, for example, that owners of professional sports teams can hire and fire coaches as the mood strikes them.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 9, 2012 at 4:17 pm

      I think my principle, that people can only be justly fired for a relevant and adequate reason is nuanced enough. This does not entail that people cannot fire people based on their mood, just that they (morally) should not be so arbitrary.

      To use an analogy, I should not just dump my girlfriend and put her to the curb just because I wake up feeling moody-that would be wrong. However, this does not entail that I cannot do this.

      As far as legal protections go, that would be another matter. It can be legal to do things that are morally wrong and this can even be justified.

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