Andy Lester

Technology, careers, life and being happy

The nameless “they” and the Facebook & job interview trend that isn’t a trend

| 19 Comments

“I’m never eating there again,” he told me. “You know what they do?”

I was standing around at a party twenty years ago, and conversation got around to what our first jobs were. I said that my first job was at the McDonald’s, and someone in the circle looked stricken. “You couldn’t pay me to eat there. You know what they do there?” he asked. “I knew a guy who worked at McDonald’s, and he saw this other guy drop a hamburger patty on the floor by mistake, and he picked it up and put it on a burger and they served it. I’m never eating there again.”

The guy at the party had invoked the nameless “they,” as if McDonald’s tells its kitchen workers it’s OK to observe the five-second rule. Maybe he meant “they” to mean there was a secret cabal of grill workers who create Big Macs with special seasonings from the floor. He took the actions of one worker at one time to be an indicator of a trend. He nursed his horror and made sure everyone else knew about it.

But what if this tale of the dirty burger got on the news? Maybe the story would spread like wildfire across the country, with outraged citizens letting everyone else know about this horror. Maybe pundits would come out with columns excoriating the stupid practice of picking up hamburgers dropped on the floor, and why it’s bad for business. Maybe opportunistic politicians could beat their chests and call for a Justice Department inquest into this alarming trend.

Absurd, right? But that’s exactly what this non-trend of “job interviewers demand your Facebook password” is.

Over the past week, blogs and message boards and, of course, Facebook have been burning up with outrage at this non-trend. People commiserate and shake their heads grimly, imagining being stuck between the rock of having an employer snoop in our Facebook accounts and the hard place not having a job. People turn on Internet Tough Guy mode and imagine their defiance at the scenario, or give their theories as to the legalities of the practice. Business pundits weigh in on why it’s a bad idea.

The original AP news story that sparked this hullabaloo named one candidate, Justin Bassett, citing one interview at one unnamed company. That’s it. Still, it’s been rerun over and over and over. Every article has a similarly declarative headline like “Job seekers get asked in interviews to provide Facebook logins.” That’s as absurd as saying “McDonald’s serves burgers off the floor” because of the story the guy at the party told.

The news media have added non-facts, with one headline calling it a “growing trend”.
The follow-on news stories didn’t help. News media and bloggers snowballed it without doing further research. Even NPR, smarting from Mike Daisey’s fabrications, ran the story saying that “some companies” are asking for Facebook passwords. “Some companies” has as much to back it up as “they,” but it doesn’t sound so bad.

Senators have called on the DOJ and EEOC to launch investigations. (Also disturbing to me is Schumer’s assertion that in the job-seeking process, “all the power is on one side of the fence,” which only helps reinforce that incorrect idea.)

Is it plausible that this practice is widespread, and getting moreso? Sure, it’s plausible. Our privacy erodes every day, and millions of us do it through Facebook willingly. The story has the feel of truthiness. Doesn’t it just seem like the thing that Big Business would do to us? We already piss in cups to prove that we’re drug-free so that we can come in and shuffle paper.

To be sure, there are cited cases in that AP story of employers requiring access to candidates’ Facebook accounts. As Matthew Kauffman points out in his excellent probing of this story, those cases are of law enforcement and corrections departments, where greater scrutiny of candidates is common and expected. “In many of those cases, of course, applicants are also subjected to a full-on psychological evaluation,” Kauffman points out.

Kauffman’s aritcle isn’t alone in being sensible. An article on CNN.com says “The reason you haven’t come across any job interviewers asking for your Facebook password is that the practice is pretty rare.”

But how did this non-story get to this point? You got suckered in and the media ran with it.

When you heard this story, did you even question it? Or did you just forward it and post it as if it was an important life-saving story about there are these gang initiations and how “they” will kill anyone who flashes their lights?

It’s 2012, and we are the media. When we fan the flames of non-issues like this, we become the media that we should seek to leave behind.

Finally, in my job as blogger about employment and job interviews, I would be remiss in not addressing how to deal with a request for your Facebook credentials. I’ve read plenty of comments in threads suggesting walking out of the interview, or lying to the interviewer and saying you don’t have a Facebook account.

Walking out may feel good, as righteous indignation so often does, but it doesn’t help your situation. You give up any chance you had of getting the job. Lying is easily disproven, and. worst of all, requires you to lie.

The best answer is to calmly and respectfully say “I believe it’s best for business to keep business and personal life separate. That’s why I keep my private life private.” You may not get the job, but at least you’ll have been turned down while keeping a strong sense of ethics about you… which is more than you can say for companies that would ask to snoop in your private life.

19 Comments

  1. “named one candidate, Justin Bassett, citing one interview at one unnamed company. That’s it.”

    Uh… the article you linked to gives many examples:

    * “the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services”
    * “the city of Bozeman, Montana”
    * “since 2006, the McLean County, Ill., sheriff’s office has been one of several Illinois sheriff’s departments that ask applicants to sign into social media sites to be screened.”
    * “Spotsylvania County, Va., the sheriff’s department asks applicants to friend background investigators for jobs at the 911 dispatch center and for law enforcement positions.”

    • Those examples are all law enforcement, which always has more stringent background checking. It was cited lower in the article, but perhaps I should have made it more clear.

      As Matthew Kauffman points out in his excellent probing of this story, those cases are of law enforcement and corrections departments, where greater scrutiny of candidates is common and expected. “In many of those cases, of course, applicants are also subjected to a full-on psychological evaluation,” Kauffman points out.

      • So you literally wrote an entire article on how something never happens and is a non issue. Someone says “hey it actually is an issue, here are multiple instances, versus the ONE you claimed has happened” and your response is to make up a new criteria for what “this actually happening” means and then just dismiss everything?

        To me, this looks like people thinking a ridiculous situation is ridiculous (makes sense) and then you denying that it happens while it clearly does happen (doesn’t make sense). I think you have the wrong person re: who is being unreasonable here.

        • I didn’t “make up a new criteria”. The point about law enforcement was in the original article. Law enforcement face much more stringent background checks, and Facebook checks are only the start.

          Yes, it’s ridiculous that employers would demand to see your Facebook page. The only question is how widespread it is. You say that I am “denying that it happens while it clearly does.” I haven’t seen any indication that it “clearly” is widespread.

          I’m all for calling attention to problems that matter. One guy at an interviewing getting asked for his Facebook password isn’t a problem that matters.

  2. Extremely well written article on the hive mind.

  3. As a resident of Bozeman, I can tell you it wasn’t law enforcement. It was city wide. It was meant for assistants to police, so your argument: “Those examples are all law enforcement” is now mute.

  4. it’s “moot”, not “mute”

  5. It’s an example of the “genetic fallacy”, no? One {McD’s worker, interviewer} did this, therefore all of them do it.

  6. FWIW, I worked at McDonald’s in the early 80s and the first time I was shown how to cook burgers, the assistant manager dropped one on the floor while flipping it. He checked to see if anyone else had noticed, then scooped it up and dropped it back on the grill. I rarely saw anything like that after my first day, but I’m not “they” and I can assure you, it does happen. (And not just at McDonald’s!)

    • I worked at McDonald’s, too. First job, taught me a hell of a lot about the real world. Big slap in the face of what life was like. I fully endorse it.

      Lots of things happen. There are some 14,000 McDonald’s in the US, so sure, there will be instances of someone dropping something and using it. There are 23,000 Subways, 11,000 Starbucks, and 7,500 Pizza Huts. Things happen there, too.

      But one guy using a dropped hamburger patty doesn’t mean “that’s what happens there!” One data point isn’t a trend.

  7. The author is yet another not-too-smart person who overlooks the biggest problem with employers asking for candidates or employees’ Facebook logins.

    The biggest problem is not the privacy of the person. They can decide that on their own. The biggest problem is the invasion of the privacy of all that person’s friends. They decided to share only with certain people, NOT with some random employer who, unbeknownst to them, their friend is going to give access to.

    • The biggest problem is the invasion of the privacy of all that person’s friends.

      I think that’s a fantastic point, and I wish I’d thought of it. It’s absolutely correct.

      The author is yet another not-too-smart person who overlooks the biggest problem with employers asking for candidates or employees’ Facebook logins.

      Damn shame you had to insult me on the way there.

      • I just love how you replied to Jason! Both, very good points. And Andy’s main point is something I thought about but not as deep as I should of. How often does this issue actually occur. It’s definitely getting blown up a lot in the media, and I shared the stories on Facebook just like a lot of other people that probably overestimated how often this occurs – purely for the fact that we use the service and hate privacy invasion. I’d still be interested in some statistics however!

  8. FYI, re the Mike Daisey thing: NPR doesn’t produce This American Life; WBEZ does. They’re an NPR affiliate, but NPR itself had nothing to do with that whole debacle.

    That said, I’m glad to have seen somebody address this. I’ve only ever heard the descriptions of it as a “growing trend”, and never seen a citation. It would take a vast deal of utter stupidity for an HR person to open their company up to such a litany of discrimination suits, and it seemed implausible that that level of stupidity would truly be a significant trend.

    • Thanks for the clarification on NPR/WBEZ. It’s funny that I made that mistake because I’m a WBEZ listener in the Chicago area, and it drives me nuts to hear someone say “I heard this thing on NPR” and I have to say “Which show?”

      it seemed implausible that that level of stupidity would truly be a significant trend.

      But isn’t that what we thought, say, 30 years ago when we started having to pee in cups to get a job? (I don’t know, I was 14 back then.)

  9. Andy
    My suggestion here is to encourage job seekers to probe how employers “train” their employees on social media usage. It think this type of training will become standard in the future workplace and I can envision how employers will tout this training in recruiting new hires. So job seekers take the opportunity to turn the tables and ask your prospective employer their strategy and training in social media. For more on his visit my blog on Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2012/04/09/facebook-and-the-job-interview-what-employers-should-be-doing/
    Jeanne C Meister

  10. Pingback: That Whole “Shoulder-Surfing Facebook Accounts At Job Interviews” Thing? It’s Probably Not Really Happening

  11. It may be somewhat difficult to find employers that publish that they ask for FB credentials, but it’s certainly common in my circle of friends. For example, a friend of mine does not use her real name on Facebook because she is a teacher and most schools in her home state (Pennsylvania) require forfeiting your FB creds.

    We may have a case of lazy journalism, but I have multiple friends who have been asked for credentials. I don’t believe (based on my limited data sample) that is really is that uncommon.

    Yes, I agree that teachers require more of a background check than a lot of professions, but I guess the question is how much should an employer demand? A standard background check for a teacher certainly doesn’t include email messages, medical records, or phone conversations. Where does FB fit on the privacy spectrum?

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