Online is Forever

When It’s Online, It’s There Forever
Protecting Your Reputation and Your Future Job Prospects

by Nora Bradbury-Haehl

Jim’s new internship could have been a great opportunity, but instead it turned out to be a big setback requiring embarrassing explanations to his parents. He lost his internship when his new employer found online pictures of him stumbling-drunk—pictures he’d posted himself. Susan was a bit smarter. She ‘scrubbed’ her online presence when she was hired for a high-security job, taking down all but the most basic information.

Of course everyone understands the internet is a great way to stay connected. For the majority of college freshmen, next to their cell phones, it will be their most important communication tool and the best way to stay in touch with family and friends. Unfortunately, in a few short years the pictures posted of freshman year exploits could come back to haunt a recently graduated job-seeker. Pictures from the party or road trip that seemed like harmless stupidity or the ‘not-for-public-viewing’ photos swapped online with a current boyfriend or girlfriend could seriously limit your options later on.

It’s easy to feel like nobody’s watching when you’re posting personal material, whether it’s a heated political debate on a message board or glassy eyed shots of you and your buddies partying at the club. A handful of your friends might see the pictures, and the chances of some encountering the folks who participated in your political debate are slim to none.

Public Domain
No matter what you believed would stay buried on the web, here’s the dichotomy of the internet: what feels like a private note to friends or a living room conversation is actually a billboard. Just because nobody has driven past that billboard yet shouldn’t make you feel safe. It all seems private, until, very suddenly, it’s not.

“It’s not illegal for a company to Google a prospective employee, and it’s not illegal for them to look you up on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn or any websites,” cautions Kimberley Mauldin, a human resources professional in Washington DC. “Keep in mind everything with your name on it or linked to you on the internet is in the public domain. If you have a LiveJournal or other blog linked to your MySpace account anyone can make the connection. Even if you casually mention that you post on a certain message board, it takes no more than a few minutes of idle clicking to connect the dots to your other profile.”

How can you protect your privacy and your reputation? For social networking sites (including Facebook, MySpace and dating sites) Ms. Mauldin’s list of cautions goes as follows:
1. Delete any photos that show you falling down, drunk, holding alcohol, drugs or drugs paraphernalia. Delete anything you wouldn’t want your grandma to see.
2. If you are tagged in a photo by a friend and it’s got any of the above, ask them to remove the photo. Untag yourself in the meantime.
3. Set up privacy filters. Each social networking site should have guidelines on how to do it. Many also have privacy levels so certain people can only see certain things. Take advantage of these filters, and set your profile so that people you don’t know can’t browse your page without a friend request.
4. Do not post negative things about your current workplace—especially if you identify yourself as an employee.
5. If you have more than one social networking site, do not post links to the other ones. Don’t make it easy for people to look you up! Never post links to any kind of inappropriate website.
6. Keep it clean. If it’s online, it’s there forever.
7. Finally, Google yourself. Try variations on your name. If something comes up that doesn’t seem right, contact the website and get it removed. If you have a common name, put in your full name and the cities/schools/groups you’re associated with. If you’re looking to go into a government job, Google your family and closest friends. All of them will be checked if you need security clearance.

Any kind of online “speech”—blog posts, wall posts, comments, shared jokes—that are sexist, racist, anti-gay or in other ways discriminatory or inflammatory make you considerably less attractive to a prospective employer. Even the groups you join on Facebook can say a lot more about you than you realize. It might be a joke around the dorm to join “I’m Not a Sexist But…” (which is a real and very sexist group on Facebook) but an employer who checks online activity may not find it so funny. You can’t completely rely on privacy settings to protect you from unexpected eyes. Profile settings are helpful in providing a measure of privacy, but they are not an ironclad system.

Obviously a better mentality than ‘don’t get caught’ is “don’t do anything that could destroy your reputation.” Many times once things are posted online they are outside your control and could end up anywhere. Is that a chance you want to take? Remember the internet is a public place, no matter how private it can seem when you’re posting alone in your room. Incendiary blog posts, poor judgment or even just bad taste can cause more than trouble—they can keep you from getting your dream job. As you view what’s online, think about an employer’s perspective. Would you hire yourself based on what’s on your Facebook or blog? Whatever is out there, make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.