Who’s Checking You Out? It’s Not Just Your Ex Anymore.

Recent graduates have left their dorm rooms behind, and many have just started their first real job.  But for some, the job search isn’t over.  The unemployment rate for recent college graduates, although down since last year, is still about 8%.  And for those who are still struggling to find work, their Facebook page may serve not only as a reminder of happy college days, but also as a treasure trove of information for prospective employers.

Wait, do employers really do that? Yes. A recent survey of US employers found that 37% of hiring managers use social networking sites – most commonly Facebook – to research job applicants.  Another 11% of employers said they planned to start doing so in the future, putting the total at about 50%.  Other surveys have put the percentage even higher, at about 75%.  This is becoming the norm. 

What are employers looking for? About two-thirds of hiring managers who consult Facebook reported that they’re looking to see if the applicant presents him or herself “professionally.” About half said they were looking for whether the applicant was a “good fit” with the company culture (whatever that means), and nearly half said they were further researching the applicant’s qualifications.

Do employers actually reject applicants because of some old photo they find on Facebook? Yes. About a third of hiring managers reported that they had decided not to hire an applicant based on something they found on social networking sites.  Half of those cases involved either a provocative photo or reference to drinking or drug use.  Other reported reasons an applicant got nixed included complaining about a former employer, lying about qualifications, making racist or other discriminatory comments, and poor writing skills.

What’s a job applicant to do? Recognizing the scope of the problem is a good first step. For better or worse, many of us share all kinds of things online that used to be private. And it’s not just what you share – it’s what your friends, and their friends, share.  If a friend posts and tags photos of you on Facebook, or puts photos of you on their blog or website, that will probably come up in an employer’s search.  So before you apply for jobs, do what your employer might do – search your name and email on Facebook, Google, Twitter, and see what comes up.

Depending on what you find (and what kinds of jobs you’re applying to, and how badly you want them), you can take a range of steps to “cleanse” your social media presence.  On the low end, you can change your privacy settings so only limited audiences can view your Facebook page. But some information on Facebook (like your profile picture) is always publicly available, and information posted by friends is subject to their privacy settings, not yours.  On the high end, you can close your Facebook account, or temporarily deactivate it, so no one (including you) can access it.

In between those two extremes, there are a range of strategies.  Some recent graduates have started playing the “Facebook name game,” changing their Facebook name to a nickname or middle name so that it doesn’t come up on an employer’s search.  Others manually try to “scrub” their Facebook profiles, untagging themselves in compromising photos and removing incriminating posts.  And still others scrub their profiles using online services like “SociallyClean” or “Facewash,” which automatically scan your profile and come up with a list of questionable entries that you can choose to keep or delete.  Some colleges are beginning to offer counseling and services like these to their soon-to-be grads.

Sometimes, especially when I’m looking at the 500th photo of what one of my Facebook friends had for dinner, I yearn for those innocent days before the social media revolution. But those days are gone. The best we can do is to take a good, hard look at our social media presence, and assume that our prospective employers are doing the same.

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