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.
Sometimes the material that gets people in trouble may not even raise an eyebrow for most folks.
Barrow County Schools caused an uproar when it forced a teacher to resign in 2009 over postings on her private Facebook account, which she had set to block access by students.
She had posted vacation photos showing her holding glasses of wine and beer, and mentioned in one posting that she planned to play "Crazy [expletive] Bingo" at a Midtown restaurant.
There are safeguards. Federal anti-discrimination laws, for example, bar employers from considering or asking job interview questions about a candidate's race, color, national origin, age, religion, marital status, sex or related factors, such as pregnancy or plans to have children.
But, critics say, a hiring manager might easily reject a candidate after running across such information in a job candidate's Tweets or Facebook entries, without telling the candidate the real reason he or she didn't get the job.
"I think it certainly raises a red flag," said Tena Friery, research director for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer group. "That's difficult for a job applicant to determine why they were denied."
Likewise, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires consumer reporting agencies that search a person's credit and criminal records -- and now online information -- to be accurate and up to date. The law also requires the agencies to make their reports available to the job candidate if they are rejected for a job based on that information, and to correct inaccurate information.
The law bars consumer reporting agencies from reporting bankruptcies over 10 years old. And it bars arrest records, paid tax liens, unpaid debts, civil lawsuits and judgments and other negative information -- including embarrassing online details -- that is over 7 years old.
But the law only applies to third-party agencies, such as Social Intelligence. It does not apply to employers who do their own online sleuthing. And again, employers may not tell job hunters they were rejected due to negative information in a report, Friery said. As a result, she said, they might not find out that a background screen was done or possibly contains inaccurate information.
Friery said she hopes the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, newly created by last year's federal Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, will "tighten the shortcomings" in the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
All this talk of Big Brother employers digging through vacation photos or unearthing indiscretions from your college days might make you want to delete everything and withdraw from the online world.
But Hain, of Bell Oaks, said that would be a mistake.
"I think you're cutting yourself off from very necessary exposure," he said. Career-oriented social networks offer job hunters an excellent way to market themselves and to build connections with possible employers by hunting for college alumni and people with similar interests.
"Withdrawing is the last thing I would do, but exercising prudence is in order," he said. "Everything's on the Internet. You can't hide."
Hain said job hunters' online profiles can offer his firm a lot of clues to a prospect's professionalism, ability to communicate well, and personal interests that might indicate a good fit with a particular employer.
He prefers LinkedIn over other sites because of its focus on business and career networking. He looks for well-written profiles, accurate job histories, appropriate photos, and a good selection of information on personal interests, such as charitable work and favorite books.
Clients "are interested to see what people have listed on LinkedIn," Hain said. He said it's "extremely rare" that online dirt knocks candidates out of job contention, but many don't make it that far because their profiles are poorly done or inconsistent with their resumes.
Rick Swygman of Cumming said he initially didn't realize how important such online profiles have become when he recently started hunting for a job for the first time in several years.
"I didn't want another complicated part of my life," said Swygman, who had left a high-paying job as a wealth manager at Bank of America six years ago to run Pinecrest Academy, a private Catholic school in Cumming.
But now that his two oldest kids have graduated from the school, he wants to get back into money management or land a sales consulting job. He has embraced the online job hunting sites, transforming his formerly bare-bones site. Now it has his photo, career and college background, resume, charitable work, favorite books, and recommendations from 14 colleagues.
"It's amazing how much easier it is to make connections," he said.
But he stays away from Facebook and doesn't put anything online that a potential employer or anyone else might somehow read the wrong way, he added.
"I just learned long ago," he said, "you just never put anything out there that is not you or could hurt you."
Job survival tips on social networks
--When in doubt, don't post it. Once it's online, it can be hard to remove completely.
--Find out what's online about you. Anything potentially damaging should be deleted. Google yourself. Also, look for photos of yourself on friends' sites and blogs. Look at forums where you've posted comments, and notices you've put on Craigslist.
--Find out what consumer reporting agencies are saying about you, which can also help you detect mistaken information and identity theft. By law, you can request a free report each year from credit bureaus and specialized reporting firms, but there are hundreds.
--Check your privacy settings on accounts like Facebook and Twitter. Some experts suggest restricting access only to friends and using Facebook's "block lists" function to bar access by potential employers.
--Create a positive image online. Your profiles on job-hunting sites should have professional-looking photos, career information that highlights accomplishments, and personal background that can help you make connections. Make sure it's consistent with your resume.
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