A private equity client asked us to reference a candidate who had been recommended to run a portfolio company. The candidate's credentials stacked up reasonably well, as did his references. Then, one of our researchers trawled his public social media profiles. Like most of us, he had opinions on Indian politics, corruption, football teams, the U.S. elections, et al. Like many of us, he had chosen to air his views on social media platforms. Unfortunately, he had not been particularly circumspect about the language or tone he used.
Among other activities, the role involved a fair amount of investor and market interface. After some debate, the firm decided that the candidate's online personal (but not private) interactions displayed an almost schizophrenic lack of maturity and judgement. While I certainly wouldn't classify him as a "hater", he certainly bordered on being an Internet troll. They didn't hire him. Amazingly enough (or perhaps not), the candidate went on a rant about free speech and privacy -- online, on a public profile.
So, with the Internet and social media revolutionizing (perhaps literally, as in the case of the Arab Spring) the way we communicate and interact with each other socially and professionally, you can't avoid having an online presence, any more than you can avoid carrying a mobile phone. Even if you choose to live in Jurassic Park, if you are senior (or relevant) enough, there will be online references to you. A good online footprint is a powerful way to position and package one's capabilities, network and access. It also allows friends, batchmates, headhunters and prospective employers to find you.
With the costs and risks of making a bad hire increasing exponentially, employers are increasingly looking at researching potential candidates well beyond their professional profiles and traditional reference checks. Apart from seeking to reinforce positive traits -- are you well networked? Do you communicate well? Are you considered an expert in your field? -- they are also consciously looking for tell-tale signs of undesirable traits that could disqualify you for the job. Do you have anger-management issues? How do you react to stress? Are you racist? Are you a team player? Apart from the traditional methods of interviewing, referencing and testing, increasingly they are going online to see what you are saying about yourself, not just to professional links, but also to your friends, followers and circles.
As a self-confessed Facebook freak and occasional Tweeter who gets anxious when separated from her smartphone, I am not advocating going offline. I enjoy sharing a clever joke, a book review or a rant about the weather as much as anyone else -- and it's informal and easy online. But the ease, broad reach and anonymity of the Internet often makes us forget that online posts are not always restricted to friends, they are not always viewed in the context we meant, and we cannot accurately gauge reactions. Fallouts can range from mildly embarrassing to potentially disastrous, as some professionals, politicians, royalty and sports team managers well know -- whatever happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas.
So, this is the moment when you stop and google yourself (use other search engines as well, and include an image search). Apart from the LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, your search results probably include media mentions, or blogs, the odd reference to an electoral roll membership. A pending court case. Tagged photographs. A review on a travel site. Review all the content through a career-tinted lens. Don't like everything you see?
Scrub -- Clean your profiles, streams, blogs, pages. Scan through and delete inappropriate pictures, untag with impunity, ask friends not to tag you. Wherever you can, remove questionable posts and inappropriate conversations. Check for profanity. Screen opinions, rants, references to bosses or clients -- and particularly to religion, race or politics. On some sites, you can ask for your posts to be removed. Consider changing your screen name or alias for some sites.
Protect: Check policy and reset privacy settings. Separate the personal from the professional, and set up separate accounts for both. Set up alerts that let you know when you are quoted on the Internet. Consider unfriending people you don't know well.
Pause: There was a time when posting online required booting up a computer, dialling up to the Internet, logging on to a site, looking for your username and password and then entering a post -- often the equivalent of counting to 10. With smartphones, tablets and broadband, your thoughts are online almost as soon as you think them.
Filter: Just because it's online doesn't mean that anything you say is acceptable. Consider a few simple checks before you post -- would you be comfortable if your mother or your boss were to see this? Would you really get into that slanging match if you were to meet the person face to face? Do you really want to reply-all to that message? If you have strong or deeply opposing views on an issue, consider sending an inbox message. Consider that some content may be construed as harassment. Are you revealing anything that was ever confidential? Be factual -- exaggeration could be construed as a lie (the big advantage of always sticking to the truth is that you don't have to remember what you said).
This stuff is going to be around forever. Reread for tone, style, grammar. Attribute quotes and sources when you can. Spellcheck and punctuate. Aliases can usually be cracked, if someone really wants to -- there are firms that are paid to literally dig through the Internet to find out what they can about you.
All that said, the social media is an incredibly powerful and positive branding tool -- more tips another day, on how to build and shape a positive online profile. Your employers, peers, partners, family and friends will shape their opinions of you based on how you interact with them and others -- both offline and online.
In the meanwhile, mind your e-language.
Sonal Agrawal is managing partner, Accord India, an executive search firm.
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