If you have an ounce of common sense, you know the basics of keeping your social media profiles “clean” when applying to jobs.
You already avoid pictures with red Solo cups. You don’t share anything you wouldn’t want your mom to see. You keep a close eye on your privacy settings. These are necessary strategies for job hunters in the digital age. But they are likely not enough to make you hirable.
When employers search online, they want your digital presence to give them more than a person free of red flags. Employers want to get a sense of – buzzword warning – your authentic self. (Click here to tweet this thought.)
Except there’s one caveat.
Although employers say they want to “get to know the real you,” they filter that online info through their assumptions of what it takes to succeed professionally. And your oddly obsessive interest in cats is probably not what they’re looking for to gauge your potential for career success.
How do we know what employers want? We asked. My colleagues at The University of Texas at Austin and I asked several employers: What are you looking for online? What would make you more likely to interview or hire someone? Less likely? And we discovered that though employers say they want to get to know the “real you,” our research suggests employers want people with things most of us expect of politicians:
- An electable personality. Employers want people who are confident and professional online, yet not arrogant. Good employees will communicate in a way that shows they are stable, friendly, curious, creative and reliable. Unsurprisingly, employers want to hire candidates they think will work well with others.
- Appropriate endorsements. Employers use your recommendations and connections to gauge your proficiency and trustworthiness.Glowing recommendations and connections to people employers know and trust seemed to increase the chances of an interview or offer. Conversely, employers said that being connected to “inappropriate networks” doomed candidates. (That’s right — employers used the word “doomed.”)
- A curated public image. Employers said they wanted to see “a consistent, professional presentation that cuts across social media.” They want to see you’ve taken time to think about your online presence. Employers interpret inconsistencies between your offline and online presence as potential deception.
- The right kind of private life. Employers were more likely to interview and hire people who had clear lines between their personal and professional lives. They valued people who had “acceptable… professional interests.” All passions are not created equal. If your Instagram photos display your interest in wine or cooking, you show maturity and curiosity in the world around you. Pictures of your beer pong championship or Pokémon card collection… not so much.
- Mainstream values alignment. The employers we interviewed wanted workers whose values align with both their own personal values and the values of their organization. Some organizations disqualified candidates that had “pictures depicting a socially liberal lifestyle.” Others disqualified candidates for expressing spirituality “too strongly.” In general, people who showed respect for their work, life and relationships did better than those who complained frequently.
Now after reading that list you may be thinking: “What a great way to recreate myself as a corporate drone and have no personal life.” Or perhaps all of the above makes perfect sense, but you just don’t have a personal PR team to help you manage your online image. You may also have genuine concerns that this cybervetting stuff could verge on illegal discrimination. (It can, which is a key reason we continue to study cybervetting and share our results with employers and policymakers).
But how can you address this? Given all the different things we do online these days, not all of these expectations lend themselves to easy advice.
Yet there are strategies that can help you meet employers’ expectations without necessarily giving up friendships, social support, recreation and all the rest-of-life stuff you do online.
Consider what you want out of life
What are the tradeoffs if you prioritize your professional life online? What do you gain and what do you lose?
Part of this process involves figuring who you are and who you want to be. By acting online and offline in a way consistent with what you value, you simplify the work of impression management and increase the chances of finding a good professional match.
This is easier for some of us than others. Biases based on race, gender, sexual orientation, political views, and even favorite hobbies still affect hiring decisions.
Get advice and feedback
Talk with people who know you well and people who know the industry or occupation well. Ask friends what three words come to mind when they evaluate your online image. Feedback can help you understand how your online identity could affect your career and the rest of your life.
Decide how much you want to curate your online information to match who you are and want to be. Then do it. Assuming that you aren’t entering a spy-training program, having some information online is generally better than nothing. Manage privacy settings, check Google and Bing, update your profile photo and share your expertise in relevant online communities.
Choose and manage digital relationships carefully
We are known by the friends we keep online. If you haven’t done so, use LinkedIn to develop and maintain a network of relevant professional connections. Ask people with whom you’ve worked or volunteered whether they can offer you an endorsement.
And of course, consider not doing certain things online (or keeping them as private as possible.) Is sharing your Farmville progress or Words With Friends score doing much to help your image as you’re hunting for a job?
Brenda L. Berkelaar is an author, teacher and researcher at The University of Texas at Austin Moody College of Communication. Her work helps people navigate and thrive in contemporary careers and life in the digital age.