For job hunters, the stagnant economy isn't the only hurdle to finding work.
These days, your comments or photos on Facebook and other online venues -- and those of your friends -- could be painting you as an immature party animal, or worse, to potential employers.
A substantial number of companies now troll blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, LinkedIn and other Internet sites to hunt for job candidates and to screen them, according to several surveys.
The trend is likely to keep growing as the Web does. And do-it-yourself efforts by employers are being reinforced by at least one young company that's now offering employment screening services that dig deeply into social media networks.
Social Intelligence Corp., based in Santa Barbara, Calif., checks to see if would-be hires have engaged in inappropriate or questionable behavior, such as posting sexually explicit photos of themselves online, using illegal drugs or making racist remarks.
In May, the Federal Trade Commission concluded that Social Intelligence is a "consumer reporting agency" similar to firms, such as Lexis-Nexis and Atlanta-based Equifax.
The FTC's decision effectively gave Social Intelligence the green light to investigate job candidates' online musings on the behalf of hiring firms.
The investigations, which legally could scour the Internet for postings up to 7 years old, have to comply with federal laws that govern more traditional background checks, such as credit reports and criminal records searches.
Through a spokesman, Social Intelligence declined to be interviewed for this story.
Advocates say such online vetting helps companies find candidates who are likely to fit well in their organizations, while critics say online job screening easily can be abused by employers.
The advent of online networking, proponents say, has made it much easier for job hunters to tout their accomplishments and make valuable contacts.
"We constantly use LinkedIn, and to a lesser extent, Facebook, to find candidates," said Randy Hain, managing partner at Bell Oaks Executive Services, an Atlanta executive search firm. The company ultimately gets about a fourth of its revenue from recruiting employees for clients that it initially finds online, he said.
During her job hunt, Nicole Hilley, 23, who got her communications degree from Auburn University in May, raised her online profile on some websites, but tried to make it virtually invisible on others.
"The reason they found me is those career sites" like LinkedIn and Monster.com, said Hilley, of Alpharetta, who began working as a recruiter for an Atlanta technical staffing firm last month.
But she also did some housekeeping on the social networks where she keeps tabs with friends, she added. She deleted pictures "that might not look as professional as you want," she said. Ahead of job interviews, she also specifically blocked some people at prospective employers from looking at her Facebook page, she added.
"I did that with like two or three potential employers," she said.
Indeed, such online exposure cuts both ways. It can help you get a job or lose one, as numerous celebrities, politicians and workers have discovered after their provocative online photos, references to illegal drug use or other questionable behavior surfaced.
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