Navigating the Social Media Minefield While Job Hunting

Social media are, in my opinion, among the more confusing things that a job candidate must deal with.  On one hand, every job blog, article, and advice column insists that you must have a social media presence.  And why not?  You can network with industry professionals on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, post your resume on LinkedIn, Tweet and re-tweet compelling news articles that demonstrate that you’re in touch with the latest research in your field, and more.  You can stay in touch with friends and colleagues, who are often the best source of job-related leads and “ins” at companies that are hiring.  This Mashable article highlights a number of great ways you can use social media in your job search – even using sites like YouTube, which most of us don’t think of as a job search resource.

In today’s over-crowded job market, it’s important to be prepared to explore “off the beaten path” alternatives to a job site.  Traditional job search sites alone won’t get you very far.  According to an HR professional I know, “companies are moving away from traditional job sites because the signal to noise ratio has declined.”  Simply put, there are too many people throwing resumes at walls, including walls they aren’t qualified to climb.  Networked candidates with referrals are more likely to posses the needed skills and help the employer avoid having to wade through hundreds of resumes that aren’t pertinent to the opening in the first place.

But social media can play a more nefarious role in your job search as well.  We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of, but now, our friends can provide us – and our perspective employer – with a constant reminder of some of these not so fine moments by posting pictures and snarky comments on social media sites.  Numerous news stories have surfaced recently regarding current employees losing jobs or candidates for openings being passed over because of something posted on social media sites.

Conflicting evidence abounds as to how much importance HR professionals place on what they find online when they research prospective employees.  Some companies generally don’t Google prospective employee’s names or check social media sites unless a candidate raises other potential red flags.  Others say that they do check on every potential employee, regardless of position — and check very carefully.  Based on what I’ve heard from these various folks, and considering their various fields, my admittedly unscientific conclusion is that the more likely you are to be working with the public, particularly children, the more likely it is that your web presence will be scrutinized.  So, with libraries, it’s probably safe to assume that most employers will at least Google your name to see what comes up.

So….what does show up?  Well, people are often surprised to learn that even if their Facebook profile is set to private and is unsearchable, it can and will turn up on Google via other, public pages that you’ve interacted with.  For example, if you’ve ever posted on the wall of a public event, public figure, or the like, that page may show up in a Google search, and your profile can be traced from there.  Same thing with friends who have public profiles – are you tagged in their pictures?  Have you posted on their wall?  Of course, the seemingly constant changes to Facebook’s privacy policies makes it difficult to stay on top of the situation as well.  What was hidden from view yesterday may be the first thing to show up in your Google results today.  I would advise Googling your name fairly frequently while you are actively searching for a job to see if anything unexpected has turned up.  It’s good to know what potential employers are seeing in case you have to address something during an interview.

If you’ve looked at your Google results and decided your social media presence needs improving, the first thing I would do on any of these sites is make sure your profile picture is professional.  This is not the time for a picture that was taken at a bachelorette party or during a pub crawl.  Even relatively innocuous pictures may cause a prospective employer to pause.  Wedding pictures or a picture of your kid(s) give the employer clues about your family status … which in turn may cause them to wonder whether they’ll have to provide a spousal position or assistance with a spouse’s job search (commonly done in the academic world, though not without griping about the amount of resources it takes), or if you’re going to want to negotiate for childcare as part of your salary and benefits package.  Can this sort of information influence them as they search for candidates?  Well, legally, family status isn’t supposed to play a role, but practically?  When you need to stand out in a pool of 100 candidates or more, I’d be cautious about giving a potential employer any reason, however insignificant it seems, to be wary of you.  In any case, find a picture of yourself (and just yourself) in professional clothing, or have a friend snap a new photo for you and upload it. Secondly, consider deleting or untagging status updates, wall posts, photos, or anything else that could be considered crass or vulgar…and use your grandmother as the barometer of what’s acceptable, not your friends.  Would you want Grandma to see that?  If not, you probably don’t want a potential employer to see it either.

Focus on content that is relevant to the type of position you want.  Sharing articles and links is an easy way to keep up with the current literature in the field and show others that you know this literature, plus your very participation shows that you understand basic technology concepts such as how to set up and configure an account, attach and share files,  use a link shortening service, etc.

If you’re not on LinkedIn, which is a Facebook-like site for job seekers, employers, and job-related networking, I would certainly advise doing so.  Once you’re on LinkedIn, you can join the ALA group, where a number of folks have posted interesting job-search-related questions, and of course you can add questions of your own.  There are also a number of state-level library groups on LinkedIn.  You can also research companies, libraries, and universities you are interested in working for by finding their LinkedIn profile.  Furthermore, the HR professional mentioned above told me that, last year, 40% of hires at their company were networked / referred hires, often coming from connections on sites like LinkedIn.  One of these positions was a legal archivist/librarian position.

Managing your online presence can get tricky, however, if you share your name with a bunch of other folks.  I’m lucky in that regard… I have a unique name, and when I Google it, everything that turns up on the first page of Google results relates to me.  I’m curious, though, about you John Smiths out there.  Most of the job-searching advice I read last year advised that if your Google results were undesirable, that you work to improve them, but their advice on how you actually go about doing that was usually nonexistent or vague.  So, those of you out there who have Googled your name only to find that you share it 300 other people, a porn star, a registered sex offender, or a blogger who makes offensive statements, what have you done?  Is there anything that you can do?  How do you approach the subject with potential employers?

There’s also the question of whether or not its ethical to ask potential employees to police themselves online or present personal profiles in a certain way for work-related reasons.   In the web 2.0 world, it appears to be getting increasingly difficult to separate our personal lives from our professional reputations and responsibilities.  It’s certainly possible to make legitimate arguments that a) employees have the right to have [legal] fun during non-work time and not have it effect their standing at work and b) that in certain cases, if a potential employer is that disturbed by an online profile, then perhaps we’d rather not work for them in the first place.  At this point, I would only advise that you do what feels most comfortable or right to you.

Finally, if you’ve never used social networking sites before, remember that it’s easy to step into them slowly.  You don’t have to become a Twitter genius overnight.  In fact, it’s possible to observe what other people are doing on Twitter without evening joining Twitter, just by Googling them or going directly to their Twitter page.  On LinkedIn and Facebook, all you need is a login and password.  You don’t have to put anything other than your name on your page before you can start interacting with others.  Take a look around to see how others are successfully (and not so successfully) using a resource before jumping in yourself, and it is easy to get a a number of great ideas.