In 2009, news broke that the city of Bozeman, Montana was asking all job applicants for their user names and log-ins to sites they visit, including social networks like Facebook.
The news rightly sparked a massive backlash, with critics pointing out that the city was not only riding roughshod over job applicants' privacy but was also potentially violating the privacy of applicants' friends. After all, an employer that gets access to people's personal social networking accounts, also gets data about those users' contacts -- information that those people had no reason to think would be shared with human resources officials.
On top of that problem, the news raised questions about whether the city was violating people's civil rights. It's illegal to discriminate against job applicants based on factors like marital status, religion, medical conditions, and whether they have children. What's more, it's illegal even to ask applicants about those topics. But employers who access a potential employee's Facebook page can obtain that information without ever posing a direct question to applicants.
Bozeman officials said the city would suspend the practice within days of the story breaking.
Unfortunately, other employers didn't get the message that asking job applicants to provide this kind of information is a bad idea.
Today, the Associated Press reports about companies that are asking job applicants for their Facebook log-in credentials, or to log in during the interview, or otherwise reveal information about their social media profiles.
It's hard to believe that companies who do so have run this idea by their legal team. Regardless, those companies are certainly risking litigation if prospective employees believe they lost out on jobs based on marital status, religion, health conditions or other information that employers aren't supposed to ask about.