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Where’s the line? Using social media to screen potential hires and monitor employees

April 03, 2012
By Verity A. Jones

Best practices: During February, March, and April, 2012 the New Media Project bloggers are looking intentionally at new media “best practices.” Join the conversation: What are the new media best practices in your church or organization? What are some other examples of how communities engage in new media well?

Yesterday on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, host Neal Conan moderated a discussion about the increasingly frequent practice among employers of checking job applicants’ social media accounts, like Facebook and Twitter. Some employers are even asking for login names and passwords in order to have full access to a potential hire’s activity online. Facebook has strongly denounced the practice of requiring passwords, and two U.S. senators have asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether that particular practice violates federal law.

It was an interesting conversation with a variety of employers and employees phoning and emailing in comments and questions. From union employees to day care operators, everyone had a story—some startling, some understandable. One day care owner explained that she requires her employees to “friend” her on Facebook so that she can make sure none are posting photos of children in their care online. She doesn’t think the employees mean to do so; they just forget that parents of the children in their care would not want photos of their little ones in bathing suits available to all online.

A job seeker with a special needs child found it unfair that while an employer is prohibited by law from asking about her home life responsibilities in the hiring process, that same employer can look at her Facebook profile and see her special needs child. The union employee noted that these are precisely the kinds of issues that collective bargaining should address with employers.

The question is playing out in church circles as well. At least one United Methodist Church Annual Conference requires access to social media accounts for all ordination candidates, and a named committee is responsible for monitoring the accounts. Although the policy is now four years old, controversy around it flares up every once in a while.

While the legal questions about employment and privacy are yet to be resolved by the courts, what best social media practices on this issue have we seen or heard? This is what I recommend:

  • Employers should establish a policy about social media access and make sure potential employees know the policy early in the screening process.
  • Remember that much of the information on Facebook is already public; searching on Facebook for public information about an individual is not that different from doing a Google search on him.
  • There is a difference between requiring an employee to “friend” her employer on Facebook and requiring passwords to accounts. “Friending” goes both ways—the employee can also see what the employer shares with friends. But passwords give the employer access to private direct messages between two people and whatever else the individual may protect from the public. I think this activity in the hiring process is going to far; it’s not so different from asking to see private handwritten letters.
  • Employees and job seekers should remember that posting to Facebook or Twitter is a voluntary activity. No one is compelled to create accounts and share details of their lives online. So they should go into it with a measure of willingness to share information and not the intent to hide everything.
  • If an employer creates a policy for social media, it should be clear about what is acceptable and what is not and why. In a church, the employer might consider requiring the employee to get permission to post photos of church members. Likewise, it might not be acceptable for an employee to share information (like health updates) about church members in status updates without their permission.
  • Everyone should approach social media as the wide, creative, public world that it is and be prepared to adjust expectations and limits as they proceed.

What best social media practices on employment and privacy do you have to share?

Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary.

The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmedia@uts.columbia.edu.


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