Your 'Online Personality' Can Kill Your Job Chances

By: Steve Outing Have you "ego surfed" lately? That is, used one of the Internet search engines to see what pops up when you type in your name? Some of your potential employers may be doing just that with your name -- indeed, it's becoming a widely spread practice for online media employers, especially, to learn more about a job candidate this way.

If you are someone who understands that in the brave new world of the Internet this is a likelihood, you may have long cultivated an "image" online that is positive. Anyone going to the trouble of researching your Internet activity will see well-crafted and intelligent posts to mailing lists and newsgroups in your field, and no visibile indications of odd behavior or interests.

But perhaps you're not perfect. Perhaps online, you're a bit of a hothead, posting angry and sometimes even abusive messages to online forums. Maybe you've gotten in online arguments in a newsgroup or mailing list, and posted some words that you later regretted. Or maybe you're a member of an "unsavory" group, say a violence-prone anti-abortion organization, that has nothing to do with your career, but it shows up during a search of your name on the Web. When a potential employer stumbles on such information, you may be passed over for a job you want and never know why.

Such information is now easily available on the Internet. Many discussion lists have archives available on the Web, and it's a simple matter to search newsgroup discussions by name. Finding out what can be intimate information about an individual is as simple as clicking a Search button. Nearly everyone who participates in the Internet leaves an electronic trail of their activities and interests -- and often beliefs and values. The accumulation of electronic evidence left scattered on the Internet can be easily gathered to form an image of your "personality" by those willing to look deep enough.

Welcome to the information age, Mr./Ms. Jobseeker.

The up side

From the employer perspective, the Internet has become a fantastic tool to aid in the hiring process. I contacted several editors who are in hiring positions for online media positions and regularly conduct Web searches on job candidates, though most weren't willing to go on the record to talk about it.

One editor at the online service of an American daily newspaper says, "I do Alta Vista/Hotbot/Deja News searches on everybody I intend to hire, either after the first interview (if they're local) or before I pay to fly them out here. To me, it's no different than calling around the newsroom/new media operation for references other than those given on a resume -- because let's be honest, if you only call the references listed on a resume, you're only going to get the White House spin on the person."

This editor says that he's not interested in political affiliation, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or "whether they believe aliens crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. ... But if I find (that someone has a) short fuse or someone who's posted irresponsible work on their personal sites or someone who, in aggregate, just gives off that telepathic DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! trigger, I file the resume in the back folder."

He says he has "not hired people who looked good because of bad HTML I found on their own sites or incredible, belligerent postings they made to newsgroups. I have hired people that I intended NOT to hire because I stumbled across some brilliant writing in their personal or college Web sites."

Another editor says that for every candidate he considers for an online job, he runs a search on the person's name. "I began the practice for no other reason than to see whether purportedly Internet-enthusiastic people had done anything with the Internet," he says. "Such research seems to me to be a natural part of fulfilling your responsibility as an employer and making well-informed decisions about those whom you hire. I believe that mistakes can do as much harm to those hired as to those doing the hiring."

This editor says this sort of online sleuthing on his part proved useful in a couple recent instances. In one, he found that an apparently poorly qualified candidate had a well-constructed personal Web page that raised his opinion of her. A search on another seemingly well-qualified job candidate turned up an old Web site on which he offered as his own material that of someone else. That person was dropped from consideration.

The Web also is useful in turning up everyday examples of someone's writing. One newspaper editor says he's thankful for the ability via the Web to easily search out a job candidate's writing. He writes, "When reporters from far-flung places send me letters and a half-dozen hand-chosen series to demonstrate their energetic, investigative, go-for-the-jugular approach to reporting, I more often tune in their Web site archives to find out if the application rhetoric meshes with the daily grind."

Touchy, touchy

Deciding whether to hire someone based on their archived postings to discussion lists or newsgroups is of course a touchy topic. In a perfect world, employers might discount a candidate's public postings that they take issue with or find objectionable if they are truly not relevant to the job. The reality is that some of those in hiring positions will be influenced.

Says one hiring editor, "Have I not hired a person simply because of one posting he/she made that I found fault with? No. Have I not hired someone who made many such postings? Yes."

Or consider the editor that upon searching an applicant's name on a Web search engine discovers that the candidate has a predilection for posting images to a pornographic newsgroup, or belongs to a discussion list for cross-dressers. Even the most ethical hiring editor might let that experience color his judgment about a candidate with such baggage.

Here's a real-life example of how employer Web surfing can impact the chances of an job seeker winning the position. An applicant for a "content manager" job at a software company reports that during an in-person interview, "the manager startled me about midway through, when he leaned back in his chair and said, 'I see by your e-mail that you're really interested in news. ... Are you sure this (position) is where you want to be?'" The job ultimately went to someone else. "Yes, this has affected what I post online," says the job seeker.

Employer/employee advice

In a perfect world, an employer might search the Web looking for information about a job candidate and look only at that information which is relevant to the candidate's likely performance on the job. In the real world, this is not always going to be the case, and some job candidates will be unfairly dismissed because employers found things they didn't like about the person stored on the Internet.

So, here are some tips for being a successful job seeker and an ethical employer in the online employment market:

Job seekers

Foremost, recognize the cold, hard fact that what you say in public Internet discussion forums is part of a public record that may be stored for a good long time -- and that your potential employers may be looking at your words. Individuals are advised to cultivate an online image of professionalism through all of their online communication. It's important for a business; it should also be important for individuals. Particularly when participating in professional discussion forums in your field, choose your words carefully when posting. Don't flame or abuse fellow forum participants. Consistent bad behavior can come back to haunt you. Do participate in industry online forums. In reporting for this column, I found hiring editors who say that people who participate in relevant industry discussion lists with intelligent comments are more likely to get hired than those who don't. If you participate in online activities that many might consider distasteful or oddball (e.g., online pornography, racist newsgroups, etc.), it may be wise to not use your real name when participating in those forums. An employer stumbling across that (personal) side of you may prejudge you based on non-work-related factors. Most readers of this column are in the news business. Most journalists wouldn't think twice before checking out the background, using the Web, of someone they are writing about. It would be a double-standard for news people to object to others, i.e. employers, doing the same thing to them by searching publicly accessible Internet archives. When involved in a hiring process, it's not unreasonable to ask your potential employers if they have researched you on the Web -- and what their reaction was to what they found. Employers

Do use the Internet to learn more about a job candidate. It's a great tool for getting an idea of an individual's body of work, by looking at the Web sites created and writing published by the person -- work that isn't all highlighted on a resume as the individual's best work. Sampling a person's postings to industry discussion forums is a useful way to learn how a job candidate thinks, and how she presents herself. If a single posting to a forum is troublesome, spend the time to look at more posts to see if the behavior is a pattern. Everyone occasionally posts something to a list or newsgroup that they later regret; don't penalize people for the rare lapse in judgment. Keep you eyes off a candidate's participation in non-work-related Internet forums. Imagine the repurcussions if employers regularly used this technique to spy on the personal interests of employees or potential employees. It would put a damper on the free speech that is so important to the health of the Internet, as self-censorship spreads for fear of economic hardship. If after researching a candidate on the Web you find material that causes concern, talk to the person about it. It's possible that what you found could be forged, or relating to another person with a similar name. More on this topic

Some of the ideas presented in this column originated from an interesting recent online conversation on the Online-News Internet discussion list. I recommend you take a look at the list archives if you'd like more insight into this topic.

Steve Archive of columns
This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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