Last week, California passed a law forbidding employers to ask workers or job applicants for access to their social media accounts. It was following the lead of Maryland, which became the first state to pass such a law after reports surfaced that the state Department of Corrections was requiring applicants to log into Facebook during job interviews so the interviewers could see their profiles, photos, and wall posts. Other states have either passed or are considering similar laws, and congressional Democrats have drawn up bills along these lines as well.
It's unclear how widespread this practice really is, but the impulse to legislate it is understandable. No one wants to be denied a job because of a private indiscretion, and even those whose Facebook pages passed muster surely felt violated. But as my colleague Torie Bosch pointed out earlier this year, laws like this could give social media users a false sense of security. California's law doesn't preclude employers from sending applicants a Facebook friend request, which could serve a similar purpose. There are also pleny of instances of workers being fired for Facebook posts even if their employers don't have access to their accounts. And even if your employers can't crack your private social meda accounts, the cops can. Courts have upheld the FBI's right to access suspects' Facebook accounts via their friends, and have forced Twitter to hand over an Occupy protester's deleted tweets as evidence in a criminal case.
Given all of that—not to mention Facebook's own history of publicizing information that its users assumed would be kept private—the push to restrict employers' access to job-seekers' online lives seems doomed. Yet the calls for such restrictions seem to be growing. In TechCrunch this week, Drew Olanoff decries employers' use of social media influence sites like Klout to screen applicants for certain positions. (Klout and similar sites, such as Kred, attempt to gauge social media users' influence based on algorithms that take into account things like how many people follow and retweet them on Twitter and how many people "like" their Facebook posts.)
In particular, Olanoff takes aim at a Salesforce.com job posting for a "community manager" that lists a "Klout Score of 35 or higher" among the desired skills for the position. Olanoff splutters:
Will Salesforce hire Community Managers with a Klout score less than 35? I don’t know. Can someone even have a Klout score lower than 35? I have no idea. Is this legal? I don’t know. Should it be? I don’t think so.
It's one thing to argue that hiring managers might be missing out on great candidates if they focus too much on users' Klout scores. But Olanoff doesn't stop at telling hiring managers how to do their jobs. He wants the government to tell them how to do their jobs—by making it illegal to even consider applicants' Klout scores.
In an interview with Olanoff on TechCrunch TV, Klout CEO Joe Fernandez points out that Olanoff is essentially assuming that employers are idiots. He explains that Klout score is useful in some contexts and not in others:
When we hire engineers at Klout, if they have a decent Klout score it's a bonus, but I'm not like passing on an awesome iOS engineer because of Klout score. So it's in context. But I think for more and more jobs, you're a spokesperson for the company. And kind of our bigger thesis at Klout is people don't trust advertising, they trust their friends. And being able to activate your network is a key skill. Fifteen years ago it was like being able to just be comfortable on a PC, then it was be comfortable on Google, now it's be comfortable on social media. And Klout is a signifier of that.
Whether or not you agree with Fernandez that Klout is a useful signifier of someone's social media expertise—and I've pointed out some of its limitations in the past—to suggest that it should be legally off-limits to employers is to reify a degree of social media privacy that simply doesn't exist. At the same time, it trivializes legitimate privacy laws, like the ones that prevent employers from making hiring decisions based on your race or sexual orientation. What's next: Making it illegal for employers to Google-search job applicants? (Google searches, it's worth noting, increasingly return social-media results from Google+). Like it or not, social media is central to many jobs today, and not everyone's personal accounts can be detached from their professional roles. Not only that, but the very sites that some privacy advocates seek to wall off from view—Facebook, Twitter, etc.—are themselves hellbent on making their services as visible and integral to public life as possible.
This is not to say that it's impossible for anyone to maintain a modicum of privacy on Facebook or Twitter these days. Doctors, accountants, teachers, construction workers—people in any number of fields can still safely abstain from tweeting without fear that it will cost them their next job. If you don't want to be judged on your social-media influence, don't apply for a job in social media at a social enterprise company. Or, if that's your dream, apply for a job in social media at some company other than Salesforce that's smart enough to snap up a great candidate who happens to have a low Klout score. If it's true that Klout is a flimsy metric on which to base a hiring decision, that alone should be enough to deter companies from relying on it.