Social media has provided a platform for just about anyone looking for one to project a certain image of themselves. It has made us, in many ways, more accessible to one another, and more accountable, too. But social media can be a road to career trouble. While Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the like can be an excellent way for those searching for work to market themselves—many companies use social media for recruiting purposes, seeking out potential employers who share their philosophy or have good ideas—social media can also be a way for employers to screen out employees. That is, while you’re busy crafting your personal image, potential employers are busy using it to predict how you might be as an employee.
There’s proof: A survey by careerbuilder.com found that nearly half of all employers use social networking sites to research job candidates, rejecting those whose social media profiles include provocative photos, evidence of drug use or drinking, negative posts about previous employers or co-workers, or comments that might be interpreted as racist, sexist, or ageist. Employers call on social media to monitor and respond to their current employees, too. Who could forget the Justine Sacco scandal, in which the PR exec pressed send on a last minute tweet before boarding a 12-hour flight: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time she landed, she had been publicly canned.
What’s more, evidence of how much time you spend on social media could give employers reason to worry that the habit could get in the way of actual work. Though posts can often be very beautiful, conjuring the image of a woman with a full, creative, humor-filled life, they also can make people—bosses included—wonder: How does this woman get any work done?
The actual act of posting isn’t the only distracting aspect of social media, however. An obsession with everyone’s online goings-on can fuel feelings of isolation and self-doubt as you wonder if other people are better at their jobs than you, better-liked, or otherwise advancing more rapidly. A 2012 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that the longer people spent on Facebook each week, the more they agreed that everyone else was happier, cooler, and generally better off.
The answer, though, isn’t to delete all evidence of your social media presence or to stay offline entirely. Instead, it’s to clean it up, and tailor what you can to the image you’d like to craft for yourself as a professional. It’s okay to be a person who likes to have fun, or is sarcastic, maybe even a little subversive at times; people are complex. But it’s important to balance such posts with observations, comments, or photos of a more serious nature, and to keep in mind, always, that how you present yourself through social media is no different than how you present yourself in a job interview, or at the office. A few tips:
Keep it (more or less) positive. Your Facebook Status box is not your best friend. Don’t use it to vent complaints about your friends, your boyfriend, your current employer or co-workers, or even the clumsy Starbucks barista. Keep it classy—and keep your problems to yourself. Whether you’re looking for a job or just looking to keep the one you have, it’s important to remember that what you write matters. Something that may seem funny to you could be interpreted in a very different way by someone who doesn’t know you or your personality.
Think before you selfie. While your friends or followers may be interested in seeing you lying in bed, lips pursed, in a real world headshot—emphasis on may be—your potential employers do not. They want to know that in hiring you they’re not going to be inviting an egomaniac into the workplace, or someone who thinks of themselves first. A recent study out of the U.K. found that the selfie phenomenon may be damaging to real world relationships, concluding that both excessive photo sharing and sharing photos of a certain type—including self-portraits—makes people less likeable. What’s more, putting so much emphasis on your own looks can make others feel self-conscious about theirs in your presence, and the last thing you want to do is make coworkers or potential employers feel judged.
Privatize. Not quite the point of social media, but if you’re going to insist on being free to write or post whatever you’d like, and want impunity, the only option is to make your accounts private. Similarly, if you find that what your friends post to your wall is a worrisome reflection of you or your beliefs, talk to them about it, turn off the function that allows them to do so, or, if you must, de-friend them.
Use social media for good, not evil. Let’s face it: Your Instagram photos of your Mexican vacation were a branding tool anyway. So why not take it a step more professional and use your online presence as an opportunity to present the very best, most marketable, sides of yourself? Post about Mexico, but also post about ideas that interest you, projects you’re working on, people who inspire you. You’re not a one trick pony. Your social media shouldn’t be either.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com