The kerfuffle over employers asking for the passwords to workers' and candidates' private social media accounts just won't go away. While it's not clear exactly how widespread this practice is, lawmakers around the country are already drafting bills that would outlaw requiring facebook logins. Many people clearly find the very idea intensely creepy and invasive.

I certainly do. Or did. As my initial knee-jerk horror fades a bit, I'm starting to see at least some situations where employers might have a legitimate right to that information.

Not so much in cases like the ones most talked about -- job seekers getting asked for Facebook passwords, like security guard Robert Collins or statistician Robert Collins. I'm not in favor of barging into someone's personal life if it doesn't have anything to do with the job. (As ReadWriteWeb's Dave Copeland noted earlier this month, "employees don't have a right to privacy or free speech in the workplace." But it's still creepy.)

Creepy or not, though, it's easy to come up with several cases where accessing worker's "private" social media accounts might be legitimate:


  • When the worker's job involves using social media.

  • If there's some incident or issue that raises suspicion of misuse.

  • If there are national security or public-safety issues involved.

For me, the first case is by far the most interesting, so I'll focus on that.

These days, people's personal lives increasingly have a lot to do with their jobs. And that's even more true for their personal online lives.

Journalists like me are living proof. As soon as this story is posted, I'll be Tweeting it, posting it to Facebook status, and putting it on Linked In and Google+. And I'll be using my personal accounts on all four services. And I've been doing that for years, in a variety of different positions, with the express encouragement of my employers.

The question then becomes: Does that give my employers the right (moral or legal) to access those accounts if I'm mentioning them or the work I'm doing there?

It's a gray area.

You really can't blame a company for wanting to access and control what its workers are saying about it or saying as their representative. But these are my personal accounts, not company-owned accounts. And posting on those accounts benefits my employers and me by increasing visibility.

But demanding passwords shows a disheartening lack of trust and would likely make many company tweeters abandon using their own accounts to promote the company's activities, products or content. It certainly wouldn't make me very happy.

So, as Forbes' James Poulos pointed out yesterday, "Employers Demanding Facebook Passwords Aren't Making Any Friends."

It's important to remember that just because you have the right to do something, that doesn't make it a good idea.

Oh, and as if this was the determining factor, Facebook doesn't like it, either. Erin Egan, the social network's Chief Privacy Officer, today issued a statement claiming that it's a "violation of Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password" and warning that employers could get into trouble themselves if they uncover information about an application being part of a "protected class" or that "suggests the commission of a crime."