x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Beware employers crossing the line on social networks

In a world where you can know a lot about a person from the ever-growing social networks, many employers are turning to Facebook and Twitter for background checks, and that can be tricky business.

Employers are turning to Facebook and Twitter for background checks on prospective employees. Justin Sullivan / AFP
Employers are turning to Facebook and Twitter for background checks on prospective employees. Justin Sullivan / AFP

When my friends want to know more about a business partner, a celebrity, or even someone they are about to meet, they type the name into the Google search engine.

If they are lucky, they will find the person's name or an account for the person registered on a social media network where they can find out more about the person's interests and hobbies and even browse through his or her photo albums.

Job interviews require the same approach. In the past, a job interview usually involved handing in a résumé, answering a few questions and drinking some tea. In some cases, it was based totally on trust, with little or no background check being carried out.

But in a world where you can know a lot about a person from the ever-growing social networks, many employers are turning to Facebook and Twitter for background checks on prospective employees and to monitor the online activities of their staff.

For job applicants, a prospective employer looking through their social network account can be a tricky business, because a candidate is trying to present a relatively impersonal image - and that is not likely to be the case on his or her social network account. The employer - a stranger - can view their personal posts.

The manager of a friend of mine recently asked her to add him to her Facebook "friends" list. Embarrassed to reject him, and fearing that a negative response would affect her relationship at work, she agreed. Every other day or so, her manager comments on one of her posts or a link that was shared by one of her friends.

"I hate this situation. There are things that I wanted to keep separate from my work life. I can't even block or remove him now. I have to be careful of what I write so that he doesn't change his perception about me," she tells me.

As uncomfortable as this situation was for my friend, I did not think it could get worse. But unfortunately, it can.

Many registered users on social networks have their profiles set to private, making them available to selected people. To overcome that, public and private agencies in the United States have begun asking job applicants to hand over the log-in information for their social media accounts so that the agencies can examine the applicants' online personas, even though by doing so they are crossing personal boundaries.

I wondered about the legal standard on this issue.

Some say that if an employee voluntarily gives an employer the log-in information to his or her account, that is acceptable. But is it really voluntary when a prospective employee desperately needs a job or if an employee fears the consequences of rejecting a superior's request?

People in the US have raised many other questions regarding the legality of the situation. Indeed, Illinois legislators have passed a bill that prohibits employers from asking employees and potential candidates for their social media passwords.

Facebook warned employers last month that asking anyone for his or her log-in information violates the network's terms of service, and it said it would sue those who requested such information.

Employers want to know everything they can about a job applicant, which is understandable. Background checks with the police are natural for organisations in the UAE. A company that hires an unsuitable person not only risks being embarrassed at a later stage, it may even be subjected to fraud. But to add "social network profile hunting" to the job application process crosses a line.

Just because employers have the upper hand in job interviews does not give them the right to breach the privacy of applicants.

When employees or job applicants hand over their account passwords to an employer, they are not just giving up a few letters or numbers but losing control over their privacy.

An employee's private life should be separate from work and not be a factor to be considered among his or her qualifications. Let's just hope that this craze does not cross the world and land in the UAE.

Manar Al Hinai is an Emirati fashion designer and writer. She can be followed on Twitter: @manar_alhinai