Managing Your Online Identity for the Job Search
In 2008, while working as a career counselor, a student came into my office to discuss her difficulty securing an internship prior to graduation. On paper, she was a phenomenal candidate – 3.8 GPA, active in student government, successful athlete, and in possession of solid letters of recommendation from her instructors, coaches, and past employers. Despite her many strengths, she had interviewed with seven prospective employers throughout her junior year but was unable to secure the internship that was required by her academic program. Perplexed, I called up a recruiter I knew from one of the companies she interviewed with and asked him to describe the hiring process for internships. In addition to the basics (i.e. phone interview, in-person interview(s), and reference checks), his company had begun e-screening applicants; he explained that the top candidates were ranked following the in-person interviews and were subsequently vetted by Human Resources which included an examination of public social media profiles and a general search of popular search engines. The student and I then conducted our own searches for her and quickly identified her problem. Although this student was a qualified candidate, negative information online created a professional roadblock.
Today, there remains little doubt that social media has had a huge impact on the way business is conducted. Worldwide, more than 800 million users log onto social media sites (like Facebook and Twitter) every month, including 7.5 million college students in the United States alone (Maxwell 47; Peluchette & Karl 30). Unbeknownst to many of these users, employers have begun reviewing social media profiles when screening candidates for employment. A recent CareerBuilder survey suggested that approximately 45% of U.S. employers are currently accessing social media sites to research applicants. Furthermore, the survey also indicated that 35% of respondents reported dismissing candidates based upon information provided in their social media profiles ("One-in-Four"). While the employers seem to be increasingly aware of what is going on in the digital world, new evidence suggests that college students are not as concerned with their own online activities, with more than 50% of sampled college students posting content deemed "inappropriate" by employers on their social media pages; this content often includes evidence of underage alcohol abuse, semi-nude photos, and profanity directed at peers, teachers, and current employers (Peluchette & Karl 30). If you are a college student, you are preparing to enter one of the most competitive and hostile job markets in U.S. history, and as such, you should be aware of the real-world consequences of your virtual activities. Often, you may post information online that is intended for one audience, unaware of the effect that this content has on unintended viewers, but a simple three-step process of reflection, revision, and reinvention could help to mitigate these consequences.
Managing Your Identity: Three-Step Strategy
An evaluation of online presence should be a regular part of your job search preparation. Although it is difficult to completely revamp your entire online identity, there are several steps that can bolster your virtual curb appeal for prospective employers. The most effective strategy for doing so actually involves a three-step process of reflection, revision, and reinvention.
To begin overhauling your online presence, a period of reflection is necessary to honestly evaluate your personal values, beliefs, and activities to ensure that they are compatible with your professional aims. Although this may prove to be a challenging process, one of the best ways to start out is to examine the impact online activities have on others. For example, an online search of the keywords "denied degree social media" will ultimately lead you to the story of Stacy Snyder, a woman who was denied a teaching degree from Millersville University of Pennsylvania, due (at least in part) to her online activities via MySpace (Krebs). Likewise, a search for the terms "fired over Facebook remarks" will return the story of Wisconsin Department of Transportation Executive, Steven Krieser, detailing how he was fired after posting Facebook comments about illegal immigration (Richmond). There are many cases where the impact of seemingly innocuous online activities can affect your employability in the real world. Ultimately the decision to include or omit any content on social media must be made by you as an individual, but it is vital to recognize that those decisions have consequences.
After identifying the areas where your online presence could be improved, try to make revisions where possible. The focus of this process should remain on your social media presence(s). Take care to delete inflammatory comments, questionable photos, and personal information that may alienate members of your prospective audience. At times, you may notice that your posts may not be as concerning as the comments posted by your friends. During this process, you will not only be revising your individual persona, but you may also need to consider who you want as members of your social network or even which social networks and what social networks you would like to be a part of. If some of your friends are posting controversial or risqué material, some employers will find you guilty by association, so unfriending some of your social media friends may help to distance yourself from those behaviors. Again, the choice of what to revise is an individual one, but these decisions will have repercussions.
Privacy settings are another area that you should understand when revising your social media presence. The ongoing commodification of social media means that it is in the best interest of social media sites to create open, transparent networks. Because of this motivation, site administrators constantly change default settings with system updates, which users must opt out of. For example, in 2010, you may have changed your privacy settings to the highest level possible at the time, only to realize that when your profile migrated to timeline format, friends of your friends can now access your content, as well. This means that a profile that you once thought hidden can now be accessed by an employer who has friended your classmate who had an internship with their organization last summer. Similarly, posts and pages that you like on social media are also, by default, visible to the public, and those likes tell a lot about who you are. The only way to know for sure who can see what information is to continually monitor your privacy settings to ensure that they have not been changed by system administrators.
After revising your social media presence, it is time to address the information that is digitally archived by Internet search engines. On some occasions, questionable content can be removed by contacting individual website administrators and making a simple request; however, as most information online is virtually impossible to remove, a more proactive strategy can help you make that information much less noticeable.
Understanding how search engines rank results is important to devising a strategy that works best for you. Whichever search engine is used, top-ranked results will appear fairly similar, as they are ranked according to similar criteria. Although your name may be mentioned a million times online, not all sources are created equal. Search engines will organize findings according to relevance and popularity. Webpages that receive a significant amount of traffic or that are linked to many other sites will appear earlier in the results than less prominent pages. Public profiles on popular social media sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) will usually appear earlier in searches for this reason. In addition to popularity, sites will also be ranked according to their relevance. This means that webpages that contain specific keywords, use the person's name in the URL, or that are more recent will often appear earlier in the results than older, or more fragmented information.
To use these search engines to your advantage, consider creating your own professional webpage or blog that integrates your name into the URL. In doing this, search engines will automatically register that website as being more relevant than other search results. As these pages gravitate to the top of your search results, older, less relevant, and less appealing entries will drop further down the list, making them less likely to draw an employer's attention. As you build your professional webpage or blog:
Finally, link digital spaces that you occupy to create a more complete image of yourself online. Including links to your accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn will ensure that your employer is more easily able to navigate and evaluate your online identity. Often, when conducting personnel searches, employers may locate profiles from different people with similar names. Connecting professional spaces makes it easy for an employer to navigate profiles, ensuring that your profile is not misidentified. These mix-ups can occur; organizing your information effectively online ensures that you do not pay the price for someone else's content.
It is important to recognize that, in today's digital age, we all are living an increasingly public existence, whether we want to or not. Some may choose to avoid a social media presence altogether, but evasion may not be the answer as corporate entities are using digital media to more effectively connect with their target demographics. Your total absence may imply that you are not tech-savvy or are out of touch with current trends. Likewise, overuse or unprofessional use of this same media can paint you as a liability for an organization looking to maintain a certain image in both the digital and real worlds. Reflecting upon the digital spaces you currently occupy, revising content, and creating new, more professional spaces will hone your online persona to connect more effectively with prospective employers, proving that you have the skills, knowledge, and identity to be successful with any organization.
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