Pay Attention to Your Image on Social Media

By Toni Vranjes

June 2, 2011

Employers are scrutinizing candidates’ character and online reputation — so you need to carefully consider what you post on Facebook, LinkedIn and other types of social media.

Consider your social-media profile to be an extension of your resume, advises Todd Owens, chief operating officer of TalentWise, an employment-screening company based in Bothell, Wash.

“Assume everything on your profile is effectively on your resume,” Owens says.

To make a good impression, use proper grammar and spelling, says executive recruiter Dan Ryan. Also, be cautious about the types of photos you post online, adds Ryan, principal at Ryan Search & Consulting in Nashville, Tenn.

“You need to use good common sense,” he says.

The way you express your views is also important. Are you ranting and raving, and using expletives? If so, you may be turning off a lot of companies. Employment lawyer Mary Wright notes that employers generally are seeking people who will convey their views in a calm, reasoned way.

“You want to present the most professional, warm and caring persona,” says Wright, of Ogletree Deakins in San Francisco.

Given all these potential problems, you may be tempted to play it safe by completely avoiding social networking. But that’s not advisable, says Amber Yoo, communications director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.

Networking sites can be excellent resources, and your presence on social networks may show potential employers that you’re up-to-speed with the latest communication technologies, according to Yoo. So it’s a good idea to have a presence on social networks – just be sure to conduct yourself professionally.

FACEBOOK

Study Facebook’s privacy settings carefully, and determine how you want to set them. Even if you’ve set them to private, it’s still a good idea to be cautious.

“Once something is published to the Internet, it is out of your control,” Yoo says. “We’ve seen stories where someone posted something they thought was private, and it ended up costing them a job.”

In addition to carefully setting your privacy controls, also choose your Facebook friends wisely, Owens says. When you friend someone, there’s a “blender effect,” because you’re mixing your reputation with the reputation of others in the network.

“It gets very hard to control,” he says.

LINKEDIN

LinkedIn is a professional-networking site, so users should maintain a professional image on the site. To do that, you need to be very detail-oriented, Owens says. Make sure that all of the information on your LinkedIn profile – including job titles, employment dates and educational background – matches the information on your resume. Any discrepancies that arise would raise a red flag for employers.

The takeaway message: make sure your information is consistent.

TWITTER

On Twitter, you have two options. One is to make your account “protected” (private), so that only your approved followers can view your Tweets. The other choice is a public account, which everyone can see.

When you’re Tweeting, keep in mind that the 140-character maximum doesn’t allow for nuances in meaning, Yoo notes. It’s easy to be misinterpreted.

WOULD AN EMPLOYER DISCRIMINATE AGAINST YOU?

Another issue to keep in mind is the possibility of discrimination. Employers do face certain legal restrictions during the hiring process. Federal law prohibits discrimination based on a number of factors, including race, religion, sex, age and disability. Many states also have their own anti-discrimination laws.

However, if you choose to disclose any of this information online, there’s always the possibility that an employer will break the law and consider that information, Wright cautions. To try to protect yourself from discrimination, you need to be very careful, she adds.

“Don’t put anything on the Internet that you don’t want employers to consider in the hiring process,” Wright says.

EMPLOYERS ALSO NEED TO BE CAREFUL

To cope with all of these issues, employers should insulate decision-makers from improper information, Wright emphasizes. That could be done by adopting strict procedures in-house, or by contracting with a third-party employment screening company.

One of these third-party companies is TalentWise. The company screens job seekers at an advanced stage of the hiring process – typically after a candidate has received a contingent offer of employment.

TalentWise is formalizing an offering to allow corporate clients to screen job candidates’ online profiles, Owens says. It includes the ability to tap into the public elements of candidates’ profiles on social-networking sites and search engines.

Contracting with an outside screening company provides job seekers with additional protections. That’s because employers who use a third-party screening firm are subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Under this federal law, employers must get written permission from the job seeker to conduct a background check. If the screening company uncovers any unfavorable information that could disqualify the candidate, then that person must have an opportunity to review the findings and discuss them with the employer before a final decision is made.

In contrast, these protections of the Fair Credit Reporting Act don’t apply when employers do the background screening themselves.

SIMPLE GUIDING PRINCIPLE

Although the use of social media during the job search can be a complicated issue, Yoo has a simple principle that can guide you during the process.

“If you wouldn’t want to see it on the front page of the newspaper, then don’t post it,” she says.

For more tips, visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. There, you can find guides on social-networking privacy, online-reputation management, and employment background checks.

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