Anna Letendre of Rock Island believes employers have the right to search online for information on job candidates to learn more about them in the selection process.

But, she adds, asking candidates for their Facebook passwords to seek additional personal information is a bad idea.

“Asking for passwords, definitely not. That is very person information,” said Letendre, a junior at Augustana College, Rock Island.

She was reacting to the growing chorus of questions regarding social media sites, job seekers and prospective employers. Among those questions: whether it is going too far when employers seek more extensive personal information by going to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.

In New York, a statistician named Justin Bassett said he was shocked when an interviewer asked for his Facebook username and password.

In their efforts to vet applicants, some companies and government agencies are going beyond merely glancing at a person’s social networking profiles and instead asking to log in as the user to have a look around, it was reported in a recent Associated Press story.

“It’s akin to requiring someone’s house keys,” said Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor and former federal prosecutor who calls it “an egregious privacy violation.”

Questions have been raised about the legality of the practice, which is also the focus of proposed legislation in Illinois and Maryland that would forbid public agencies from asking for access to social networks.

Since the rise of social networking, it has become common for managers to review publically available Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts and other sites to learn more about job candidates. But many users, especially on Facebook, have their profiles set to private, making them available only to selected people or certain networks.

Companies that do not ask for passwords have taken other steps, such as asking applicants to “friend” human resource managers or to log in to a company computer during an interview. Once employed, some workers have been required to sign nondisparagement agreements that ban them from talking negatively about an employer on social media.

Asking for a candidate’s password is more prevalent among public agencies, especially those seeking to fill law enforcement positions such as police officers or 911 dispatchers.

Conservative stance

George Blomgren, director of business systems for MRA, the Management Association, a Wisconsin-based not-for-profit organization with offices in Moline, is aware of the concerns on both sides of the fence.

“I work with employers and job seekers on appropriate use of social media. I advise each group to take a conservative stance,” he said. “There are a large number of them (employers) that admit they are doing this (requesting access). But there are a couple of problems with this.

“There is no law in place on what employers can and cannot do. And if job seekers have not given you permission to do this, it is kind of on iffy ground. So, I would also tell employers to ask to have job candidates sign a consent form, to give permission to check.”

While Letendre believes some of what employers want to know is “cutting in on your privacy, looking on Google is fine,” she added.

She also sees a lesson for job candidates, especially young professionals just starting out, to be extra cautious in posting on social networking sites. “You should be concerned what you are going to put out there,” she said.

She said many students worry about college drinking photos that could portray a person as a “party animal.” She avoids that herself. But she also can see things from en employers’ point of view.

“If I were an employer, it would make me think twice about a lot of things on Facebook. That does represent your personality,” she said.

“I do hear that a lot of companies look on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Personally, that would not bother me. I don’t post those things. But I would tell people if you are putting up stuff you don’t want employers to see, don’t put it up.”

While the drinking photos are what commonly is thought of as what college students should avoid, Blomgren said employers are more concerned about people with a history of bad-mouthing their employers on public sites.

He alluded to a recent ruling by a division of the U.S. Department of Labor that ordered a company to rehire five employees who were fired for publicly complaining about their jobs online.

So while it may be legal to gripe about a boss, he said it is not a good practice.

“The No. 1 thing (employers) look for is previous complaining. They do not want to hire employees who are constantly complaining about their employers.”

Therefore, avoid it.

Be careful what you post

Brittney Zwolfer of Park Ridge, Ill., a 2009 graduate of Augustana, said the social media field has completely changed in less than three years since she graduated. She sides with job candidates on the privacy of information.

“It’s wasn’t as huge as it is now. We didn’t even have Twitter,” she said. “I don’t think it should be used to determine if a person is qualified or not. There are certain things you should or shouldn’t share with someone anyway.”

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Johnna Adam, director of employer relations and internships at Augustana, offered plenty of advice to students entering the job world.

“We always tell students to Google themselves, to make sure they are checking their access and to see what is on their page, what pictures they are tagged on. That is more precautionary than reactionary,” she said.

Natalie Cassady is a recruiter for Coyote Logistics, a Chicago-based company that serves as a third-party conduit for transportation companies and clients needing products shipped.

Coyote was among 48 companies and agencies that set up shop last week at St. Ambrose University, Davenport, for Pro Fair, a joint effort by Augustana and St. Ambrose to connect college students with prospective employers.

Cassady said checking up on candidates on social media is not an issue for her company.

“We don’t Facebook people when we typically are going through the interview process,” she said. “I don’t want to have a biased opinion of a candidate. We have a very casual interview process. We want to get to know people.”

And she agreed that asking for passwords is “a little intrusive.”

Brendan Sugrue, a sophomore marketing major at St. Ambrose from Crystal Lake, Ill., said he takes no chances in what he posts on his social media pages.

“That doesn’t concern me,” he said while attending Pro Fair. “I know well enough not to post anything that might damage my image.”

But he also said everyone has freedom of speech and “obviously has the right” to post what they wish. And he would not consent to giving his password for any site to an employer. “That’s a ‘no.’”

Marie Trumbull, a senior at St. Ambrose from Bloomington, Ill., was taught well in her college classes.

“It is definitely something my professors made me aware of, do not put (certain things) on social media, unless it is super private,” she said. “A good rule of thumb is it is something you don’t want to show Grandma, you shouldn’t put it online.”

Like Sugrue and many others, Trumbull uses LinkedIn, a business-oriented social media site which she considers a good place to connect with friends and associates. She recently experienced first-hand how things are in the real world.

“I interviewed for a job yesterday,” she said Wednesday. “They wanted to know all my personal websites and social media sites. That was OK with me. I know what I have out there.”

Christian Jackson, a manager with Transamerica Financial Advisors in the Quad-Cities, advocates using LinkedIn as a better way to network. “But I would not ask for a password,” he said.