We call her Aunt Dolores but she's really not our Aunt. She is... now see if you can follow me... the 70-year-old sister of my sister's father-in-law. We see her a lot at family functions. A year ago Aunt Dolores got on Facebook. And so that she could live up to her reputation as the "fun" aunt, she "friended" my teenage kids. They accepted. What happened next is no surprise. She saw pages that shocked her. Girls and boys trash talking each other. Lewd and racy photos. Profane and filthy comments. Inappropriate postings on each others' walls. And that was just in her Bridge Club group. The activity on my kids' pages was even worse!
And then Aunt Dolores committed the ultimate Facebook faux pas: she commented on my son's wall in response to something stupid another kid wrote. Grandparents and older relatives heed my warning. If you want to have an online relationship with your younger relatives remember this: stay silent! Aunt Dolores violated the code. Her reward: instant un-friending.
My wife and I aren't bad parents. We've sat through excruciatingly long middle school plays, listened without comment as 22-year-old teachers gave us advice on raising children and endured endless drives to Virginia, Maine and parts of Pennsylvania where most inhabitants have one eye and are married to each other's cousin -- just so that we could cheer on our kids as they played soccer, baseball, squash and track. Yes, squash.
But we've drawn the line at Facebook. We don't go there. The amount of dribble, trash talk and mostly undecipherable nonsense exchanged between middle and high school-aged kids would make any grown man's brain melt after an extended period of exposure. When it comes to their online activities I have to cross my fingers and trust that my kids use judgment. I am being incredibly naive. But this is a battle I'm not up to fighting.
You would think I would feel the same about Facebook privacy for prospective employees. But I don't. In fact my stance, as a small business owner and employer, is different. When someone applies to work at my company I want to see what they're up to on Facebook.
Recently the House of Representatives voted down a bill that would restrict employers' access to prospective and current employees' Facebook pages. In a blog published last week, PCWorld's Tony Bradley argued that he does not want employers to have any access to his Facebook page saying it is an invasion of privacy and a breach of security. "The practice is at least unethical, if not illegal," he wrote. "There is simply no valid reason for an employee to give you his or her Facebook credentials -- or any other password for that matter." I respect Tony's opinion on this issue. He's a good writer and I'm a fan of his.
But he's not an employer. I'm an employer. And if you want to work for me, then I want to see what you're up to on Facebook.
I understand if this upsets you. It would upset me if I was applying for a job too. I wouldn't want anyone digging into my Facebook activities. If you're anything like my kids you probably have lots of things on your Facebook timeline that do not do you proud. As a parent that concerns me even more. You can't be responsible for others writing on your wall or tagging you in pictures when you're out having fun. You're human and like all of us you've written things that you now regret. And maybe you'd prefer not to share the fact that you're a member of the Maroon 5 fan group. Believe me, I wouldn't want to reveal those details either.
But as a prospective employer I want to see what you're up to on Facebook. I don't want your "password." I don't want to be able to go onto Facebook and be you. I don't even want to monitor your activities on Facebook once you're hired. All I want is to be "friended" for a short period of time while I'm evaluating you as a prospective employee. Because if I'm going to be a "friend" to you by giving you a job and allowing you to enter into my company, my community, my life, my employees' lives... is it not so unreasonable to ask to be your friend in return?
I may not even look at your page. It may not even be necessary. And if I do visit your site I doubt I'd even spend much time there. Like most employers, I get it. We know that our employees have personal lives and do goofy things. You should see the moronic exchanges I still have with my fraternity brothers... and we graduated college more than 25 years ago. I don't really care about that stuff.
But there are some activities that would raise my antenna. I'm no human resources expert, but I am looking for extreme issues. Is your online behavior severely inappropriate? Do you belong to any groups or participate in any activities that could be construed as harmful, racist, demeaning or offensive? Are you a member of the KKK, the Nazi Youth or the New York Mets fan club? Are you crossing a professional line in your personal life that I can't ignore? This is my livelihood.
Why do I care? Because before I hire someone I want to know as much information about that person as possible. And there are three reasons why.
For starters, I have to consider the welfare of my existing employees. I can't bring someone into the company who is disruptive or abusive or just not a good fit. At the age of 47, I am still the world's worst judge of human character. I need all the help I can get. A simple interview doesn't suffice. Checking references is never enough. A resume doesn't tell me everything I need to know. If Facebook helps me determine that a prospective employee may be offensive to others in my office I want to know that. Whenever I hire someone I feel like I'm taking a gamble. Any information that can help me reduce this risk is welcome. Access to a candidate's online activities would be very helpful.
Secondly, for most small businesses hiring a new employee is no small matter. It's a large risk. We are investing our time, resources and money in a new person. This is a person who will be representing my company to my customers, suppliers and partners. Who I hire says a lot about me and my company. If, after six months, it turns out to be a failure the result could be a major setback. We want to avoid this from happening. I hire someone with the intention of employing them for life. I don't want to have to do this all over. So, again, the more information I have during the review process the better.
Finally, in a close contest with another candidate, access to Facebook could turn out to be to a prospective employee's benefit. Maybe there's some educational activity that wasn't on a candidate's resume. Maybe the candidate is part of a group or has friends that I know who could serve as that extra little reference that I need. Maybe that candidate is doing something special online, like writing poetry or recommending books that sets that person apart or serves as a deeper connection to me. I'm not looking at just a piece of paper. I'm looking to invest in a person. I want to know everything about that person. I want to feel right about that person before I open up my life to him or her. And make no mistake: for any small business owner, our business is our life.
And what if, as I was asked recently on MSNBC's "Your Business," a candidate refused my request to give me access to his or her Facebook page? Would that impact my decision to hire that person? It may. I wouldn't be upset with that person because, like I wrote earlier, I wouldn't be thrilled about giving up my privacy either. But, if by refusing to share with me information that other candidates are sharing, I may not know enough about this candidate to hire him or her. Is LinkedIn enough information? Maybe. But I always want more.
It's 2012. Most of us evaluate employees like it's still 1960. We look at resumes and have an interview and call up a reference or two. Times have changed. The process for hiring people is changing too. Social media is now a deep part of our culture. And it should also be part of the hiring process.
Another version of this post appears on The Philly Post.
Follow Gene Marks on Twitter: www.twitter.com/genemarks