Ethics @ work: Should Facebook be off-limits to employers?

Once upon a time, your private life was private.

The Facebook Effect vertical (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Facebook Effect vertical
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Once upon a time, your private life was private. You pretty much controlled what information you wanted to provide friends, acquaintances and potential employers. You chose to let some people be your best friends and know a lot about you, to have other people be casual acquaintances who would know little, or to let strangers know nothing. If the person meeting you for a date or the person interviewing you for a job wanted to know more than you let on, the only real alternative was to hire a private investigator, which is pretty burdensome and expensive.
Of course, people could and would judge you on what you chose to reveal, and a person who chose to be too close-lipped could find himself without a second date or without a job. But you were still in control of that option.
The Internet changed all that. First it was Google. All kinds of incidental information – including a lot of things that are fundamentally public information that a lawabiding private investigator could easily have obtained – is now instantly found with the press of a button. (Of course it still matters if the subject’s name is Asher Meir, of which there are only a few, or John Anderson, of whom there are scores just on Wikipedia.) Googling a date or a job prospect may take away some of the mystery, but it became so easy that for many it seemed negligent not to.
Next came the social-networking sites such as Facebook. Now things that you really only meant to reveal to your best friends have become accessible to total strangers, without even needing to pry. Of course, you can always just not use Facebook.
But Facebook is a useful way of communicating with friends, and keeping it off limits to strangers takes work.
One possible solution to this conundrum is to regulate the networks themselves.
There are pros and cons of regulating the default privacy settings of Facebook and other social networks.
The German government is now considering a variation of this: They are proposing a law that would limit the scope of searches employers could use when considering job applicants. They would be allowed to use general-purpose public information as well as information on jobnetworking sites. But they would draw the line at social-networking sites.
I think this proposal makes a lot of sense because the kind of private information found on Facebook is a “public good,” meaning that providing it to many people is no more expensive than providing it to one person. As the ancient rabbinic expression says, “A lamp for one is a lamp for a hundred.”
But in this case it is a public bad. I would really prefer to publicize this information to only a select group of people, but doing so is burdensome. The area of public goods, and public bads, is a classic area where markets fail and where the coercive power of governments can make a real contribution.
A subtle question that the lawmakers will have to deal with is whether employers require prospective employees to disclose this information as a condition of employment.
This is a different question because prospective employees can always refuse, and the law would still have teeth by giving an advantage to companies that don’t request this information.
There is a case for denying employers the right to base hiring decisions on certain kinds of information. For example, there is a public interest in avoiding race discrimination, so it is forbidden to take race into account in hiring. Some, but not all, jurisdictions forbid discrimination based on political belief. Again, there is a public interest in allowing people to enrich the public sphere with their political views without fear of retaliation in the job market.
I believe there is a public interest in allowing people to keep information about their private lives completely private. The alternative would either be a chilling effect that keeps people from legitimate activities that employers might view as risky, or a wasteful expenditure of resources in trying to keep these activities secret.
The German government’s new proposal is an interesting and promising new approach in the struggle to restore to individuals the power to control access to their private information. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).