The news that some employers have asked for direct access to the Facebook accounts -- including user names and passwords -- of people applying for jobs at their firms has set off a firestorm of controversy. The reports have raised questions about whether the practice is illegal and if such a policy could expose those employers to potential discrimination lawsuits. The dust-up has even triggered calls by some in Congress for a federal investigation into the practice.
But those recent events only highlight a new reality: the identity that individuals create in the world of social media is quickly becoming an important factor in hiring decisions and in people's broader professional lives. "The questions around employer access to social network logins reflect a broader debate in society about a host of digital privacy issues," says Andrea Matwyshyn, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics. "This is a new concern -- the degree to which employers can gain access to all role identities through one virtual space. There is no parallel to that in the real world."
While the reaction to the practice has been swift and intense, it's hard to predict if it will become a lasting trend. But Matwyshyn says she began hearing about employers requesting access to the Facebook accounts of potential hires as far back as 2008. To date, however, she notes that there is no good data on how widespread the practice has become. But the fact that it exists at all is not entirely unexpected: According to Matwyshyn, a number of studies show that most employers look at candidates' online profiles when making hiring decisions. Case in point: A 2011 survey by social media monitoring service Reppler found that 91% of recruiters reported using social networking sites to evaluate job applicants.
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