(MoneyWatch) The good news is that the job market is heating up (Admittedly that only takes it from stone-cold to tepid, but prospects are better than they've been in at least three years.) The bad news is that employers are increasingly askingand other social-media passwords as part of the process of vetting them.
While it's unclear how widespread that practice is, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is happening with increasing frequency, as
"It's important to understand that more and more employers are looking at whatever they can to inform them in the hiring decision," says John Challenger, chief executive of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Whether it's a photo from a college party posted on Facebook or an incendiary comment on Twitter, employers are looking for anything that reveals more than candidates typically share in interviews."
It's interesting to note that a company asking for your passwords obviates any efforts you might have made to create privacy settings that separate your professional side from your social life.This gives employers access to everything -- private or not.
Is that fair? Maybe not. But it's not illegal, nor overtly discriminatory. While social media can be a huge help for job applicants, allowing them to network widely and disseminate resumes to friends, friends of friends, and distant acquaintances, there's also a down side.
"Even a seemingly innocent remark on some social or political issue could put your candidacy at risk if the hiring manager doesn't happen to agree with your point of view," Challenger says.
Challenger expects the courts to eventually rule on whether employer access to your private information should be limited, particularly when you're applying for a job that doesn't require a security clearance. In the meantime, here are five things you should keep in mind about social media and work:
Recruiters troll LinkedIn. Put as much care -- or more -- into designing and feeding your LinkedIn profile as you do your resume, Challenger says. Keep it constantly updated. Recruiters are increasingly trolling the site to find qualified candidates, whether or not they have applied for a position. Recommendations are important, and are equivalent to good references. Don't be shy about asking former employers and colleagues to praise you online (and be willing to return the favor).
Privacy settings still matter. Even though some employers are getting past people's privacy settings by asking for passwords, this is a relatively unusual step, Challenger says. It's far more common for employers to look at what you've made public on Facebook than at what you've kept private. If you haven't separated the professional from the personal, do it before you apply for work.
Leave religion and politics at home. Just as you wouldn't bring up your political or religious views in a job interview, you shouldn't make them part of the public forum on Facebook. To be sure, some people will agree with you and like you more for it. But others will eliminate you without your knowledge simply because they disagree with your political views. If you want to discuss heated topics like religion and politics, do it among friends and behind privacy settings.
Prepare to be polite. You may think that asking for your social media passwords is so out of bounds that it sends you into a screaming rage. But realize that recruiters go to trade association meetings and talk. You don't want to be a poster job-hunter as the most outrageous interview rant -- no matter how justified. On the other hand, it's hard to complain about somebody who calmly declines an inappropriate request by saying, "I'd be happy to direct you to my public profile, but I only share my personal life with close friends and family."
Tweet and post professionally. While your unprofessional party photos and impolitic posts could cost you a job, sharing appropriate articles and white-papers about your industry can raise your professional profile, much like giving speeches and writing articles of your own, says Challenger. If you want to make social media work for you, work it.