Regardless of potential legal issues, many employers are turning to online searches to help them vet job applicants.
With a tough job market, it’s crucial that job seekers learn how to not only pass this initial screening, but how to make sure their search results wow employers and get them past the interview round.
First Things First: Legality
Full disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor am I intending to provide legal advice. That being said, many people want to know, “Is it illegal to Google a job applicant?”
Jason Sutheimer, SPHR and President of Central Dakota Human Resource Association, recommends employers stay away from conducting online background checks due to the potential liability of discrimination claims. As he explains, “Even when following an expert’s advice, there is still the possibility of facing a lawsuit. The cost of litigation to challenge the lawsuit will be very expensive even if the employer prevails in the suit.”
The problem lies in the fact that when an employer does an online search of job applicants, they have the ability to see information that is technically off-limits for making a hiring decision. For those companies that are just too tempted to jump online for more information on applicants, Beliveau Law Group offers suggestions on how to comply with the law, but it still comes with a hefty warning.
But it doesn’t appear that all employers are heeding that advice. A 2013 nationwide survey of hiring managers and HR professionals conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of CareerBuilder found that 39% of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates. Honestly, I would have guessed that percentage to be higher!
With that in mind, you owe it to yourself as a job seeker to make sure that when potential employers search for you online, the find the right kinds of results. Follow these steps to make sure:
Assess Your Surroundings
From the CareerBuilder survey, we know that almost two in five employers admit to performing online searches on job candidates. These employers expect you to know you will be Googled. If you’re not making an effort to clean up your online image, you’re basically saying, “I don’t care.” (Click here to tweet this.)
Would you ever turn in a resume or cover letter without proofing it? (Please say no.) The Internet is your resume amplified, so proof it and perfect it!
How do you find out what an employer will see about you online? Conduct your own search:
- Do a search for your name in all the major search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask, even YouTube). Note: If you have an account with any of these providers (such as Gmail), you will need to log out when doing your search since results are customized for users.
- Conduct the search with a variety of options, including with and without quotation marks, with and without your city or state, and with and without your industry or last employer.
- Ask a trusted friend or family member to search you and see if they find anything they think you should be aware of.
Clarify Any Confusions
Having bad luck with identity confusion? If you have a common name or the same name as someone with a strong online presence (good or bad), you will need to get creative in clarifying your true identity.
Try using variations of your name, such as:
- Adding your middle initial or full middle name.
- Using your legal name rather than a shortened version (i.e., Caitlin rather than Cate).
- Including your maiden name as a middle name or hyphenated last name.
If you end up having to use a variation for your professional name, make sure you use it consistently on your resume, cover letter, email signature, social media accounts, blogging username, website “About Me” page, etc.
If you’re not able to differentiate yourself by name alone, you’ll need to make a strong presence for yourself in your industry and consistently use a clearly identifiable photo of yourself across all your online accounts.
Eliminate Immediate Hazards
As Sutheimer cautions, “Anyone utilizing social media should use common sense and take a proactive approach when using social media to ensure any information you share is not or cannot be interpreted in a derogatory manner. If discussing the information with your pastor or mother would make you uncomfortable, you shouldn’t be sharing this with the online community.”
I couldn’t agree with him more.
The fact of the matter is, you probably won’t get a chance to defend whatever is discovered about you, so if anything could even be perceived as inappropriate, you should make an effort to get rid of it. This goes for photos, articles you’ve written, comments you’ve made on other blogs or social media, and your affiliations with other people or associations.
One of the easiest ways to control your online image is to own the URL of your name. If you haven’t already purchased it, you can own your name as a domain for no more than $10 a year. Even if you aren’t ready to build a website for yourself, you can point your URL to any page online you want, like your LinkedIn or Facebook account or a personal landing page such as about.me. If you already run a blog with another URL, you can still redirect your name URL to that blog.
By owning the URL of your name, you can include it on your resume or in your email signature when communicating with potential employers, thus directing them to whatever you want them to see online first.
Build Your Stronghold
Consider these numbers:
It’s obvious that if an employer discovers inappropriate or compromising information about you during an online search, your chances of getting the position are at risk. However, did you know that some information they find may actually help you seal the deal?
So, what are employers looking for, and how can you wow them?
According to the CareerBuilder survey, one in five hiring managers said they hired a candidate based on something they found out about them online. Here are the top points that seal the deal — and how you can make sure they work in your favor:
1. Conveying a Professional Image
Not only do you want the information that pops up in search results to be PG; you also want it to be PB (professionally based). How do you get this?
- Write articles or guests posts for industry blogs or sites. This show that you truly are an expert in what you say you are.
- Share industry news via Twitter or LinkedIn. You don’t have to come up with the news; just share it to show you’re in the know.
- Participate in online discussions such as Google Hangouts or Tweetups related to your industry.
- Share white papers, case studies or a portfolio of your work. (Portfolios are a must if you work in a creative field.)
2. Showing Your Personality
Does your online image portray an approachable, well-liked individual? Technical writing has a definite place in your professional image, but employers want to see the “real” person behind it all. So:
- Keep your posts and social comments positive and upbeat. No one wants to work with a Negative Nancy.
- Celebrate others’ accomplishments and give them credit for their successes. (Your online presence shouldn’t be “me, me, me.”)
- Write in your own voice, when appropriate, to lighten the mood a bit.
- Build genuine relationships with your online contacts. It will show you truly care about collaborating.
3. Being Well-Rounded
Your online image doesn’t need to be all suits and ties. You’re a real person, and employers want to know if you’re a good fit for the culture of the office. So let them get to know a bit about what you do outside of work by sharing things like:
- Photos of you volunteering with groups that are important to you.
- Online membership in community or service groups.
- Posts and photos about favorite vacation spots or recreational activities.
- Book reviews or recommendations for some of your favorite reads.
4. Background Information That Supports Your Professional Qualifications
Sometimes employers are just looking to verify that you haven’t lied on your application. There are many things that can let employers know you’ve actually accomplished what you said you did:
- Online participation or membership in industry-related organizations.
- Press releases or photos referencing your involvement with a project, topic or previous employer.
- White papers or reports listing you as an author or co-author.
- Articles citing you as an expert source. (Check out Help a Reporter Out (HARO) for how to become a media source — it’s free!)
Employers aren’t necessarily judging how impressive your DIY images on Pinterest are, but they are looking for someone who can think outside the box and bring a unique perspective to the workplace. Show them you’ve got what it takes to stand out and make an impact:
- Share stories and photos about how you solved a problem. Even if the problem was just how to make a last-minute Halloween costume, it shows you can think on your feet.
- Share graphics that are well-designed to help spread a message.
- Create a fun how-to video.
- Share unique and original information. Sharing the work of others is great, but you need to be able to produce your own content as well.
6. Great Communication Skills
Employers are looking for individuals who can clearly communicate with coworkers, customers and partners well beyond an email memo. Demonstrate your communication skills by:
- Making sure you use proper grammar and spelling in your posts and social comments.
- Posting videos of you speaking or interviewing someone else.
- Creating slideshares or infographics to clearly communicate a message.
- Sharing tutorials you’ve designed to help others.
7. Glowing References
No matter what you say about yourself, having strong references and recommendations from others will go far in convincing employers you’re the right person for the job. Online, this can include:
- Recommendations and endorsements on LinkedIn.
- Comments, link-backs and social shares on your blog posts.
- Followers on social sites.
- Mentions on other blogs or sites.
You don’t need to do all of these things, and you certainly shouldn’t do any you’re uncomfortable with, but it’s important to keep in mind what your online presence is telling employers. It’s also important to keep in mind that your online image should match your offline image — don’t try to portray someone you’re not.
Do you know what employers are finding when they Google you?
Laurie Morse-Dell is a personal branding and social media coach focused on empowering individuals to succeed on their own terms. She has spent over a decade building a successful career in strategic marketing for small businesses, government agencies, nonprofits and international corporations. She then realized her true passion was in helping other women use strategic marketing to get what they desired out of their careers. Laurie uses her expertise in marketing and technology to teach job seekers how to build their online image, become indispensable and be in-demand.