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10/8/2013 / Published Work

From Columbus Business First: Password to your secret polka life?

Copyright 2013 Business First of Columbus Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Published Sept. 6, 2013.
By Colleen Marshall

A Central Ohio woman lost her job because she danced the polka.

There’s nothing wrong with the dance itself (unless you’ve seen my relatives at a wedding), but there is something irreparably wrong with dancing a spirited polka, or doing a back-flip off the side of a boat, or running a 5K race when you are collecting disability benefits from your employer.

The disability-collecting dancer proudly posted to Facebook videos of herself swirling around the dance floor. She also chronicled her partying and vacation activities, all the while claiming to her boss that she was simply in too much pain from a back injury to get out of bed and report to work.

When she finally was ready to come back to her job, she was shocked to be met by the company’s employment lawyer who had an array of photographs and a slip of paper in a lovely shade of pink. Attorney Sara Jodka says the polka party did not come to light because of anything the company did. Instead, the polka princess was reported to management by fellow workers, who were rightly appalled to see their colleague gaming the system.

Monitoring employee behavior – even aspects of their lives they consider to be private – is not difficult in Ohio. Employers in the state have broad access to the social media activities of their current and potential employees, and we all know how eager people are to share their unguarded moments with the world on Facebook. Why is it then that they are surprised that those candid moments make their way to their manager’s desk?

Ohio is among the vast majority of states that allow employers to require workers and recruits to surrender their personal social media passwords. State Sen. Charleta Tavares, D-Columbus, is trying to change that. She failed to win support for Senate Bill 351 in 2012, but she is again trying to get a Senate vote on a new proposal, S.B. 45, that would make it illegal for an employer to require workers to surrender passwords.

Tavares says she has no interest in restricting employers from inspecting the social media that is readily available to an applicant’s network of friends and could help an employer legitimately determine if a worker is a good organizational fit. But personal passwords give employers expanded access to an applicant’s history, personal conversations and hidden files.

The ACLU of Ohio is backing Tavares’ bill, and in testimony before the Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee, ACLU Associate Director Gary Daniels claimed passwords give employers unnecessary and intrusive access to “our political preferences, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, medical conditions, income, friends and the thoughts we care to share.”

Whether such legislation is necessary is still subject to debate. Jodka claims few employers are interested in keeping tabs on your personal life, but law enforcement, finance and child-care industries require the in-depth screening that might include a look through the window of your most private actions. Your social media profile also can expose your poor grammar or your lack of judgment – legitimately important to a potential employer.

Tavares concedes “it is evident that employers must assess potential employee’s work ethic; however, monitoring the frequency of activity and content of personal postings as a means of assessment is a violation of privacy.”

Even the casual viewing of an applicant’s social media could give an employer access to information they are forbidden to consider – an applicant’s race, age, religious affiliation, national origin, gender, veteran status, pregnancy status, genetic information or sexual orientation.

As a result, it’s wise to have a standard written search policy that defines for the person doing the hiring and the job applicant what social media sites will be searched and the type of information that will be reviewed. Then, the initial screening should be done by someone other than the person who will make the hiring decision.

Even if Ohio outlaws employer access to personal passwords, polka-dancing disability collectors will not be safe. If you choose to share your candid, embarrassing, immoral or illegal moments with the world, you should not be surprised that the world is watching. And, please, do not bring a video camera to any of my family’s weddings.