Looking for a job can be an intimidating process. One, you must shape a compelling narrative about your life in your cover letter. Two, you must perfect your resume. Three, you must make sure your social media is up to snuff.
You might be getting some conflicting messages about what “up to snuff” means. Does it mean being corporate as hell, being yourself, or being untraceable?
“I think of it a lot like going into a dinner party,” career coach Angela Copeland says. “When you first go in, you meet a lot of people and you don’t necessarily know what their views are on certain topics. There are a couple things you don’t typically share with strangers, like politics, religion, and things relating to money. When you’re looking for a job—or looking to keep your job—you want to take these kinds of sensitive topics into consideration.”
And while it sounds like a drag, not being cautious can have real consequences; according to a study by the job-hunt site CareerBuilder, 54 percent of employers said they’ve declined to move forward with a candidate based on something they’ve found online. “People definitely lose opportunities because of how they’re presenting themselves,” career coach Joyel Crawford says. But don’t fret too hard. There are plenty of things you can do to set your footprint straight.
“A lot of people get overwhelmed and make the mistake of wiping their slates clean,” Andrea Gerson, the founder of Resume Scripter, says says. “But companies don’t want to hire boring people who don’t have interests. They like to see that you’re connecting with people in other fields; that’s a real asset for employers.”
“As we get older and were moving into more professional spheres, we want to make sure that the content we’re posting is aligned with what our professional goals are,” Gerson says. But that doesn’t mean you’re over being playful and connecting with your friends.
If you’re in a highly corporate or traditional field, she suggests setting up two separate profiles on the social media platform you use the most: one public and one private. For the private one, you can use an alias or a last initial only.
Copeland also says you might set up separate LinkedIn profiles if you have two careers, one conservative and one creative. “Maybe for your professional career, you can go by your first name and last name, whereas for your creative career, you can go by your first and middle name,” she says.
Alternately, you could dedicate some of your social media accounts (for instance, your LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram) to your professional services and use another type of social media account (for instance, your Facebook profile) to speak freely under private settings.
“The concept of your ‘personal brand’ can be intimidating and feel insincere,” Gerson says. “The goal is just to share things that you’re genuinely excited about. That way you’re gonna be connecting with people who have similar philosophies and values and genuine professional relationships can come from that.”
“People can sense fakeness,” Crawford agrees. “I always encourage people to keep it real. You’ve gotta find your own vibe.” That doesn’t mean airing every last detail of your dirty laundry or dragging people. When you’re keeping it real, “speak at a high level,” she says.
“Log out of your accounts and see what strangers can see,” Copeland says. “On Facebook, for example, you can choose whether to share a post publicly or only with your friends. This is a great option that allows you to share your opinion—but not with your potential employer.”
So, this is terrifying, but when you delete things…they may not be totally gone. That’s because there are sites like the WayBack Machine that periodically crawl the internet and archive pages for posterity. The WayBack machine alone has saved more than 334 billion web pages.
So just remember, the internet is not a “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” kinda space. “It’s really important to realize that the footprint you put out there now may continue to follow you far into the future,” Copeland says.
Obvious, yes, but…don’t just see what comes up in the search results. Also take a look at the images, which are gathered from all over the internet. If there are certain photos you don’t like, source where they came from and see if you can change the privacy settings to prevent that kind of pull from happening in the future.
Even if you use an alias when commenting, it’s usually pretty easy to put two and two together. Don’t slander people in the comments sections of Instagram or go apeshit under an article. Even if you have reason to be annoyed, it’s not worth risking your career over—and it probably will make you feel worse.
If you did or said something you regret and that made the news, that’s unfortunate. It’s also well within a media outlet’s rights to report it, accurately. If there is a factual error about you in a news story, you should contact the outlet and ask them to correct it.
On Facebook and LinkedIn, you have the option to view your profile as the public will; seize that opportunity and tinker accordingly. On Instagram and Twitter, you’re either totally public or totally private, so consider what makes sense for you.
Also, make sure that you get a notification to approve tagged posts before they land on your Facebook wall, Crawford warns. You don’t want to get dragged into petty drama or scammers’ posts.
“The biggest thing is to understand your audience,” Crawford says. “If you have a Facebook page or an Instagram page, take a look at who’s following you and what their needs are.” Remember that these people could be potential clients, customers, or employees.
If you have an extremely common name (hello, Katherine Smith), you might get the benefit of the doubt if someone creepy comes up when you get Googled. But if your name is more unique, keep an eye out for any doppelgängers. While there’s not much you can do about their activity, Copeland says you should be in the know.
“I worked with a job seeker a few years ago and someone else in his city with his name was a career criminal. When you Googled him, the first thing that would show up were those guy’s mugshots,” she says. It’s good to know what’s out there so you’re prepared to clear up—or even pre-empt—any potential confusion.