More than ever before, employers are searching the Internet for information about potential hires. From your personal website, to your LinkedIn profile, to postings you made on an industry blog, you might be surprised by the amount of information that exists about you online. And in today's employment environment, hiring managers have become increasingly cautious about new individuals they bring on board, meaning that any red flags could carry extra weight. A bit of digital dirt that simply would have been a minor embarrassment only a few months ago might be a deal-breaker today.
Start on the right foot
Your first step should be to gauge your online reputation. Conduct a search with your name in quotes using the major search engines. If you have a common name, you can narrow the search by including the name of the city in which you live or a previous employer.
If you find content you wouldn't want a potential employer to see, such as unflattering photos on a social networking site, an angry message board post you wrote about a former employer, or information from court documents, contact the site's owner and ask that it be removed.
Unfortunately, your efforts will not always be successful. In some cases, you may have trouble reaching the person who posted the information, or the webmaster may be unwilling to accommodate your request. In other cases, it will be impossible to remove the information - for example, if you were quoted in a newspaper story. In this situation, be prepared to explain the findings to the hiring manager in case he or she asks about it during an interview.
Launch your own PR campaign
Whether or not negative information about you exists on the Web, it's a good idea to ensure that there are plenty of positive associations. In a competitive job market like today's, a strong - not merely "clean" - online presence can tilt a hiring decision in your favor. A little effort can go a long way toward presenting yourself in a good light. For example, posting to user group discussions or submitting content to an industry newsletter positions you as a leader in your specialty area. You also might consider launching a website to detail your professional skills and accomplishments or starting a blog about a professional subject with which you are closely familiar.
Another good idea is to join a professional association. Becoming a member of a local group's board, presenting at association gatherings, and maintaining an active presence in the organization are other ways to ensure that your name is referenced in a favorable light on the Internet.
Keep up your efforts
Going forward, be mindful that digital damage is often self-inflicted. If you have a personal website, blog, or profiles on networking websites such as LinkedIn or Facebook, review every piece of information you present about yourself. Remove any potentially inappropriate content - such as wild photos from your college days - or use privacy settings to ensure that your information is hidden from potential employers. In addition, be selective about the people you let into your online networks. Potential employers may reach out to these individuals during the reference check process.
If you regularly contribute to blogs or message boards, be aware of what you say. These sites tend to be casual places where people write emotional responses on issues they're passionate about. So if you don't want a hiring manager to see your posts, consider using a pseudonym.
Another smart step is to conduct an online search of your name every few months to determine what a potential employer would find and to see how effective your efforts toward building a positive online presence have been. An alert through Google can make you aware of new information about you online, and services like BlogPulse and Technorati can track online conversations about you and any personal blogs or websites you maintain.
Publicize your efforts
If your online presence is especially strong, make it easy for hiring managers to find positive information about you by including the URLs of these sources in your resume or cover letter. For example, if you're applying for a software development position, you might point the employer to an article you wrote about a popular programming language. With such material on hand, a hiring manager may be less likely to scour the Internet for additional, potentially negative, information about you.
Keep in mind that a strong digital footprint is an essential career tool, not just for those who seek new employment. Even if you have a job, your online presence could play a role in shaping your professional reputation. Posting critical messages about your supervisor or a colleague, for example, could come back to haunt you. At the same time, building a positive online presence now could put you in prime position for the next time you must look for work.