Can Employers Afford to Turn Away Applicants Because of their Social Media Accounts?

In the summer of 2013, the Senate passed Bill 5211, which prohibits employers from demanding the social media passwords to their employees’ or prospective employees’ accounts. Employers are also no longer allowed to demand that their employees accept friend requests, or to look over their shoulders at their posts (“shoulder-surfing”).

This law comes as a sigh of relief for employees who use social media. However, On Device Research, a London-based firm, still found that 1 out of 10 people between the ages of 16-34 who apply for a job have been rejected because of something on their social media accounts. Job-seekers may or may not be surprised to hear this statistic: after all, being careful of what you post on your social media accounts is now a standard piece of advice one hears before entering the job field.

But is this fair? Over 1.1 billion people have accounts on Facebook, meaning that 1/7 of the world is connected on this social media platform alone. Add in Twitter, Instagram, Vine, FourSquare, Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, Pinterest, Reddit, and who knows how many other social networking platforms, and there’s hardly a person with access to the Internet who doesn’t currently have an account that they are posting to.

My little niece is currently two years old. There are pictures of her entire life on Facebook and Instagram. She recently learned how to say “phone” without anyone teaching her the new word, and now she uses it to demand YouTube videos from us. Her generation, surrounded by smart phones and social networking, will be interesting to watch grow up. What will happen when she grows up and creates social media accounts of her own, but still has no control over the decades of content others have posted for her?

To be fair, adults even have this problem. When a friend posts an inappropriate picture of you, you have very little control over what happens to that picture. You can ask the friend to take it down, but they might refuse. You can report the picture to whatever social media platform, but many of them have been notorious for flaking out on their policies.

What about the teenagers who have been posting content to their social media accounts for years? Facebook was founded before I ever entered high school. Teenagers will never stop making mistakes and posting images or content that they will later regret. Should they be punished for something stupid that was published years before they reached maturity?

All you can do is count your blessings that your embarrassing baby pictures were taken before parents inhabited Facebook.

Another issue social media users face is determining what others might find inappropriate. In January of 2012, Lindsey Stone was fired for posting a picture to Facebook of her flipping off a sign at Arlington Cemetery. This was mostly a result of the outcry from many other social media users who found the picture to be offensive and disrespectful. Ms. Stone was actually shocked by the reaction of these protestors, and posted a few statements saying that she didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but was just joking. Had Ms. Stone flipped off a sign in another location, one that isn’t a national monument or a tribute to American soldiers, her picture would most likely have been ignored.

Kathleen Brady, a New York City-based career management coach and author of GET A JOB! 10 Steps to Career Success, gives this advice: “One gauge: ask yourself if you would want your grandmother to see the information.” However, there are many obvious flaws to this wisdom. What if you don’t care what your grandmother would be offended by, and generally post it anyway? What if your grandmother is overly sensitive or not sensitive enough? What if something that doesn’t offend your family members or your employers sets off a large group of random strangers on the Internet?

Keeping employers from demanding access to their employees’ accounts through Bill 5211 is only the first step. With so many users on social media, including current teenagers, can employers afford to keep eliminating potential hires based on their social media publications? Is it fair to hold employees accountable for their lives outside of work posted on Facebook?

I think, in general, it’s not. Employers should be extremely lenient when looking at a future employee’s social media accounts, if they do at all. Only when the applicant has published obviously offensive content should they be penalized. Otherwise, employers are going to run out of people they can hire.


Soper, Taylor. “It’s now illegal for employers to ask for your social media passwords in Washington.” (4 Sept. 2013).

Garone, Elizabeth. “Can social media get you fired?” (4 Sept. 2013).

Sieczkowski, Cavan.  “Lindsey Stone, Plymouth Woman, Takes Photo At Arlington National Cemetery, Causes Facebook Fury.” (4 Sept. 2013).