We have all heard the stories of people losing their jobs because of personal online activities. Less often we hear tales about applicants losing a job opportunity for the same reason (mostly because it happens during the vetting process), but it happens all the time. While we should always conduct ourselves properly, online and off, we have all said or done things in our downtime that might make us cringe at the thought of an employer knowing about it. To prevent your online activity from undermining your professional development, clean up your social media on a regular basis and always at the start of any job-hunting process.
Facebook: Cleaning up your Facebook profile can seem daunting but it is actually quite simple. First, review all the photos you are tagged in, remove the tags from any incriminating ones, and delete any you posted yourself. It is also worth sending friendly messages to the people who posted these pictures and asking them to take the photos down. They may be surprisingly receptive because if a picture portrays you in an unflattering light, it probably does the same for everyone else in that photo, too.
Next, review your profile and Timeline. Fixing your profile and removing anything inappropriate or embarrassing is a relatively quick process. Looking at the content you shared, your updates, and comments on your Timeline, however, will be time consuming. If you were an early adopter, this could mean going as far back as February 2004. For most of us, it will more likely be around 2006/2007. While employers mostly care about the past couple of years, you could still end up haunted by something you said or did several years ago. Everyone understands that Facebook is a forum for people to express their opinions, share jokes, and interact candidly. Unfortunately, it is also a place for people to post drunkenly, badmouth current and former employers, and overshare details about their personal life. Remove anything that falls into the “unfortunate” category.
Lastly, change your privacy settings to friends only. Privacy settings are the second best way to prevent social media from sabotaging your professional aspirations. The best way, of course, is to refrain from posting anything that would.
Twitter: You can make quite an impression in 140 characters or less, especially when your tweets are public by default and can be viewed around the world instantly. With the exception of entertainers with a certain shtick, there is no reason for you to include profanity, sexually explicit terms, or otherwise inappropriate language in your tweets. Go through the same process you did with Facebook and delete anything inappropriate. Also, look closely at things you may have tweeted in jest but could be misconstrued by someone who does not know you. Humor often does not translate online among strangers. As you comb through your tweets, if you are unsure of something ask yourself two questions: 1. What if my recruiter/HR/new boss saw this? 2. Is this worth losing a job over? Your answers will make the decision to delete or keep quite simple.
While tweets are public by default, there are privacy settings and you can now protect your tweets so that only people you approve (i.e. your followers) will see them. A few caveats: If you are trying to amass a following, this is not for you. Protected tweets cannot be retweeted, and replies you send to anyone not following you cannot be viewed by them. Also, while all future tweets will be protected, anything you posted before the change will remain public and searchable. Protecting your tweets during a job search is still an excellent idea, and you can always make them public in the future. There is a lot of potential for user error here, though, so treat your protected tweets as public content.
LinkedIn: The world’s largest professional network is revolutionizing how we connect with colleagues and find new opportunities. The most important thing to keep in mind is that LinkedIn is a professional site and your activity on it is directly related to your career. Your photos, comments, and shared content should be professional and business-related. This is a social networking site for your work life, and your personal life does not belong here. We have Facebook for that. Whenever you post on LinkedIn, pay close attention to your spelling and grammar and avoid slang as much as possible.
Other online communities: Because they are so prevalent, most of the focus on social media and the workplace revolves around Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Any of your online activity, however, can be a source for scrutiny. Recently, Gawker revealed the identity of one of the most notorious internet trolls who posted and moderated an enormous amount of offensive content on Reddit. Under his pseudonym and the illusion of impenetrable anonymity, this individual was a gleeful agitator posting about unsavory topics, a plethora of content that would make any employer or recruiter blanche. He was fired the next day, and it is not hard to imagine that finding a new job will be difficult for him.
As you participate in online communities, comment on articles, and post reviews, keep in mind that the internet is a public space and conduct yourself accordingly. Remember even if something is deleted, that content can still be found and is largely out of your hands once it is posted. Do not forget that anonymity is not a guarantee that your identity will never be discovered. In this day and age, it is easy enough to do, particularly if anyone knows you are the person behind a particular pseudonym. This is not intended to scare you away from being an active participant online, just make sure that anything you post is a genuine reflection of who you are and how you want to be perceived by everyone, including recruiters and employers.