This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
If you are looking for a new job or want to advance in your current one, you need to be aware of your online reputation, or how you appear to others online. For better or worse, the pictures, comments, and posts that come up in the search results for your name can have a significant influence on your career.
According to a 2017 CareerBuilder study, 70% of employers check social media profiles and 69% are Googling candidates as part of their applicant screening process. This means that the things you share online—and what others post about you—can impact a hiring manager’s decision.
In fact, 54% of employers have decided against hiring a candidate due to content they found on the person’s social media. The situation is especially troublesome for young job seekers aged 16 to 34, with 1 in 10 having lost out on a job opportunity because of their social media activity.
Even after you land that job, you’re not safe from scrutiny. That same CareerBuilder study also revealed that 51% of employers monitor their current employees’ social media posts to ensure that they are not disclosing proprietary or confidential or information, harassing fellow employees, or otherwise breaking the law.
One famous case involves a teacher who was forced to resign because of the vacation photos she posted on Facebook of her holding beer and wine. Accompanying these photos was a post stating that she was “headed out to play Crazy B*tch Bingo” at a nearby bar.
In another example, a young woman was let go from a job she had just accepted at a pizza restaurant after tweeting “Ew I start this (expletive) job tomorrow.” Unfortunately, the owner read her tweet the next day and tweeted back “And…no you don’t start that job today! I just fired you! Good luck with your no money, no job life!”
Because your online activities are under surveillance, you need to make sure that your online reputation presents the best version of yourself: the version that will boost your career—not stall it.
How to find out what your online reputation says about you
To see what employers see when they look for you, you need to Google yourself.
- First, log out of your browser (or open a browser you normally don’t use) to get results that aren’t influenced by your search history.
- Then, search for your name. You should also search for variations of your name, like Name + City and Name + Occupation to get the most comprehensive results.
Look carefully at the search results that Google associates with your name, especially the ones on the first page, because this is as far as most people ever look. Do your results present you as a polished professional? Or, do they send a negative message?
What employers don’t want to see
Most employers are not looking for dirt on you when they search for you online; they are merely trying to verify the credentials that you listed on your resume and to see if you will be a good cultural fit with the company.
Obviously, you won’t get hired if an employer finds that you’ve lied about your qualifications—or if you’re a bit … odd.
However, your chances of getting hired are also greatly reduced if a potential employer discovers any of these things in the Google search results for your name:
- Signs of criminal behavior
- Evidence of problematic drinking or illegal drugs
- Discriminatory statements about gender, race, or religion
- Provocative videos or photographs
- Confidential information about previous employers
- Criticism of a previous employer or former fellow employee
Next, take note of where the problematic results are coming from so you can ask the person or website to delete or amend the objectionable content. (See Remove negative content below.)
If any of these items are in your search results, you need to take steps to suppress or remove them to maintain your employability.
Ways to ensure your online reputation is an asset, not a liability
A negative online reputation makes a bad first impression on potential employers and can damage your personal brand with current employers. Luckily, you can improve your online image by taking the following steps:
1. Limit who can see your posts
Use the privacy settings in your social media accounts to limit who has access to the things you share. In Facebook, for example, you can choose between “Friends only,” “Friends of friends,” or “Everyone.” Always select “Friends only.” This way, employers can’t see the things you post.
However, other people’s posts about you will still be visible. As such, it’s a good idea to reach out to the people in your social networks and ask them to untag you or take down unflattering or inappropriate posts about you.
2. Think before you post
The best way to ensure that you have a spotless online reputation is to not post anything that you might later regret because once you post it, it’s no longer in your control. Even if you decide to delete it, it might still be present as a screenshot on someone else’s computer.
Ask yourself the following before you hit “post:”
- Is this item appropriate to share in a work setting? If you were in an office setting, would you be comfortable with everyone there seeing your post? Pictures of your baby niece’s pumpkin Halloween costume, for example, are fine to share. Pictures of your naughty police officer Halloween costume should be kept offline.
- Is this a complaint about my job? Avoid bad-mouthing your job—even on websites that promise anonymity for this very purpose—because you might inadvertently share information in your complaint that reveals your identity. Grumbling about your work shows that you’re not a team player and that you don’t value your position.
- Will this hurt my company’s reputation? If you’re currently employed, you’re probably linked to your company’s name online, whether on your company’s website or in your personal social networking profiles. As such, your online activity reflects on your employer. Be careful not to share content that undermines your company’s image.
- Is this true? Not fact-checking the things you share online could be giving you a reputation for being sloppy and unprofessional. If your current employer (or a hiring manager) notices you posting half-truths or misleading content, then this might lower your chances of getting that promotion or new job you wanted. To ensure your online image paints you in the best light, you need to verify—via a fact-checking site or a news outlet—every story before you share it.
3. Remove negative content
There are two types of negative content: content you posted and content that someone else posted about you. While it’s a relatively straightforward task to go through your social media posts and delete problematic posts, it’s much harder to get other people to remove content. In most cases, websites are under no legal obligation to delete content just because you asked them to.
However, if the content violates the website’s Terms of Service or meets Google’s removal policy requirements, then your chances of getting it removed are good. For complete instructions on how to remove negative content, see How to remove an article from the Internet.
4. Address incorrect information
If some of the information contained in the search results for your name is incorrect (for example, it’s about another person with the same name), then you need to point this out on your application so that the company you want to work for doesn’t judge you for someone else’s missteps. There are also some things you can take to correct these errors so that they don’t reappear in a future pre-employment check. See our article How to correct errors in employment background checks for more information.
5. Build your own brand
The key to repairing a negative online reputation is to push down the unwanted items in your Google search results page with content that you post and over which you have control. Because things created by you tend to rank highly in search results for your name, it’s important to publish and update content regularly.
Some ways to create content are:
- Get active in industry groups on social media: Be sure to comment and post frequently to show that you are engaged and informed about industry topics. As an added benefit, joining these discussions will help you grow your professional network.
- Start a blog: Claim a professional-sounding domain name, like FirstnameLastname.com, and leverage your industry expertise to write blog posts. You could also write about a hobby or other innocuous topic, so long as it reflects well on you and showcases your talents.
- Flesh out your LinkedIn profile: LinkedIn often ranks at the top spot in a person’s search results, so it’s important to be active on the network and take advantage of its many features. For details, see Make your LinkedIn profile an online reputation management tool.
6. Optimize your resume
You want employers who search for you to find information that highlights your skills and accomplishments. One way to do this is to ensure your resume is easily searchable online and easy to read.
Here are some ways to do this:
- Optimize it for the role you want: Focus on specific words in the job you’re looking for and the industry you want to be in. For example, if you’re a CPA looking for an accountant’s role, emphasize your education and your experience as an accountant. Mention your ideal role and industry in your resume’s opening. The words “accountant” and “financial” should turn up quite a bit.
- Post it online: Once you’ve got everything in shape, get it out there. A good place to start is on LinkedIn, which has a resume function that allows you to redraft and update your experience and work and makes it searchable. The easier your digital resume is to find, the better.
- Add links: If there are links to relevant information available online, include those in your digital resume. For example, if a magazine covered a project you led, have a link handy to direct employers to coverage of your good work.