Should your employer ask for your Facebook password?

Reports of US companies asking potential employees for their Facebook passwords underlines the need for consumers to control their own social sphere, writes Nicola Clark.

As inappropriate interview questions go, 'Can we have your Facebook password?' is up there with 'Any plans to have a baby?' Yet reports from the US suggest some companies are intent on checking out prospective employees' lives via the social network.

Facebook has been quick to denounce the news, on the grounds that it invades consumers' privacy.

Erin Egan, who has the somewhat unlikely job title of 'chief privacy officer' at the company, wrote in a blog post: 'As a user, you shouldn't be forced to share your private information and communication just to get a job.'

Brands are facing up to a related dilemma. Facebook often knows more about the lives of a company's consumers and employees than its marketing and HR departments.

LinkedIn knows more about the skills and experience of the employee base of many of the UK's leading businesses than the relevant HR department does. Returning to Facebook, meanwhile, it knows more about the average brand manager's nights out on the tiles than even the most plugged-in chief marketing officer.

'Don't let your Saturday night meet your Monday morning' is an oft-used phrase among recruitment consultants urging 'generation overshare' to keep their online profiles in check.

As the role of social networks in consumers' business and personal lives evolves, where companies, brands and individuals choose to draw their lines in the sand over ownership and use of data will be key. As brands continue to invest in social networks, ensuring the right guidelines and boundaries are in place is vital.

The industry is already at risk of forgetting that the primary purpose of social networks is not to connect consumers with brands or employers, but with other people. If brands can't gain the trust of their own employees on social networks, how can they expect consumers to engage with them?

THE UPSHOT

What marketers need to know about the new age of privacy

Consumer control

Analysts have long argued that Generation Y does not share the views of older people on what constitutes privacy. While it is true that younger consumers have grown up sharing images and intimate details of their lives on social media, this does not mean they do not care who accesses this information or where it goes. They may have a different definition of privacy, but they still want control of their data.

Beyond due diligence

Marketers need to shift their thinking from simply box-ticking when it comes to privacy, and instead view themselves as guardians of consumer data. Smart brands that realise the importance of transparency place consumers' concerns ahead of their own.

Permission marketing

Whether it be through apps that automatically post brand messages on consumers' Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, or, alternatively, mail-order companies that ask consumers to opt out of, rather than in to, receiving marketing materials, brands are at risk of breaching consumers' trust. Social businesses not only engage with their customers, but expressly ask for their permission to do so.

Nicola Clark is Marketing's head of features. Follow her on Twitter: @nickykc.

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