Taming Your Online Presence

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Posted by Stacy Nelson on June 16, 2011
Taming Your Online Presence

For most students, summer break is a time to let loose, slip into that new bikini, hang out with friends 'til way too late, and finally try one (or two) Miller Chills that you've been hearing about since last July.

But what happens among friends during summer break stays among friends on summer break, right? Not necessarily.

Before posting evidence of your craziest summer moments on your Facebook page or laughing at the photos in which you've been tagged, it's important to consider the effect exposing your private life could have on your job search.

Social networks like MySpace and Facebook have not only become new ways to check out a friend, a friend's friend, or an ex-friend's new friend-they have become a tool for employers to scope prospective hires-regardless of whether they use it to decide whether a candidate would be a good fit.

"The reality is if you have a public profile, employers have every right to view your page, because you made the conscious decision to make it accessible to anyone," says Julia Nietsch, a 22-year-old Temple University graduate who tamed her Facebook profile in before applying for the job she scored in the public relations and marketing department of a local hospital.

The recent grad says she considered making minor changes to her profile to ensure nothing would appear unprofessional to the employer. "You need to use common sense," Nietsch explained. "But then again, 'common sense' isn't always so common."

In April 2008, Facebook matched MySpace's global traffic of 115 million visitors per month. The employer-student utilization of Facebook and other social networking sites goes both ways: Employers research potential new student hires and students research employers. For this reason, social networking sites have created a new frontier in the recruitment process. Employers turn to Facebook-creating their own accounts and launching company pages to communicate with job seekers and promote their brand. 

In fact, employers' use of social networks during the recruitment process is now a documented trend. According to a 2008 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), nearly 17 percent of employers surveyed reported plans to use social networking sites as part of their recruiting effort, compared to 11 percent in fall of 2006. The same survey shows nearly two-thirds of employers who expect to use the sites say they plan to advertise on them, and more than half will use the sites to network with potential candidates.

Deborah Borisoff, a professor of culture and communication at New York University, examines the ways social networking sites have reconstructed the natures of privacy within our culture. Prior to the social networking boom, communication between job seekers and potential employers was mostly done one-on-one via email, telephone, or letter writing. But these interactions are shifting.

"These connections have been re-cast from one-to-one to one-to-many interactions," Borisoff said. "As a result, notions of privacy that may have been more expected in earlier forms of connecting have been re-construed."

JoEllen Fisherkeller, an associate professor of media and culture at the same university, attributes new "grey" areas in how both employers and employees assess employability and a good work environment to this shift in communication between job seeker and employer.

Employers have the right to know as much information about prospective employees as they can find, she argues, as long as it pertains to the position's requirements.

"As a feminist, if I were looking for an employee and the candidate's social network profile indicated that the person was sexist, I would not want to hire such a person-as a feminist," Fisherkeller says. "But if a candidate looks strong in terms of fulfilling a position due to experience and skill, I should be obliged to interview the person in person, and not just rely on social network impressions."

Many recruiters adhere to the same philosophy, by avoiding hiring decisions based solely on a candidate's personal page.

Maureen Crawford Hentz, a manager of talent acquisition, development and compliance at Osram Sylvania, agrees employers should find other effective ways of taking advantage of social networking sites in the recruitment process. They are not a place where employers should look for candidates, she says, but are "better suited as a soft sell to build your employer brand online."

Other employers who share the opinion of Crawford Hentz have taken extra steps to prevent networking from interfering in the talent search. Deborah Compagner, a recruiter and project manager for Ernst & Young's Facebook site, says E&Y established a policy against using Facebook as background checking for recruiting decisions.

But while some employers have made it part of their company culture to avoid crawling on your Facebook premises, it's never wrong to be safe and do some housekeeping. 

Tolulope Aleshinloye, 23, graduated from Fordham University two years ago and now works as an assistant buyer for Cartier. She advises those looking to advance or launch their careers to be careful about how they portray themselves on the web by untagging or removing friends' indecent comments from their wall.

"Whether it's you posting it, or your friend, you do have a choice to untag a photo or remove a comment, she said. "Unfortunately, whenever something personal of you is on Cyberspace, you can not change somebody's judgment." 

Nietsch agreed."It would be silly to say it's wrong to have a drink if you are of age," she said. "But it is problematic when 100 or a majority of your pictures have you holding a drink. The employer might think, 'This person is constantly drinking or is a binge drinker, and this behavior may affect his or her work performance.'"

Other measures such as limiting your "interests" section should also be taken into consideration."

As far as the 'interests' and 'about me' stuff, I would censor and limit what I listed. It obviously wouldn't be smart to include 'drinking' in that section," said Hamiltion Durandisse, 22, a senior accounting and finance major at Fordham University.

Borisoff advises her students to consider the ways in which they are being read by others-whether in person or online.

"Particularly while they are on the job market, (students) can consider posting information that reflects how they want to be read by others-including those who are outside of their network," Borisoff said. "While this might be construed as limiting their freedom of expression, given the reality of a competitive job market, it may also be interpreted as managing their freedom of expression."

Whether or not the suggestion of altering your online image when preparing for a job search seems like a punch to freedom of expression, it's important to realize you could be judged on social networks as much as you would be in real life.

Maybe worse, because there's no room for explanations.

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