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Studies show job hunters, college hopefuls should watch what they post online

That picture plastered front and center on your Facebook profile is harmless enough - right, Johnny Jobhunter? You know, the one from that out-of-control graduation shindig last semester where you held a jaw-dropping, record-breaking keg stand just long enough for the partyrazzi to snap about a million incriminating photos?

Beware, college grad: a once-glorious moment from drunken days gone by - when captured on camera and displayed before the Web's teeming masses - could spell doom for your job prospects.

So says the surprising results of a recent survey from the UMass Dartmouth Center For Marketing Research.

Study co-authors Dr. Nora Barnes and Eric Mattson talked to 121 of Inc. Magazine's top 500 companies - some big, some not-so-big - about their use of social media.

The results are eye-opening. Employers have the technology, and they're not afraid to use it.

Of the companies polled, 42 percent were familiar with social networking sites, while 27 percent admitted to actually using them to investigate applicants. Even more copped to cruising message boards, at 33 percent, while 24 percent perused online videos from sites like YouTube.

More than a quarter of the businesses interviewed called these search methods a "very important" part of recruiting, while 40 percent named them "somewhat important."

The next generation

Pay attention, high-schoolers. This concerns you, too. A subsequent follow-up study conducted by the same team showed that colleges and universities are getting in on the act at an even faster rate than their corporate counterparts.

Barnes and Mattson conducted detailed interviews with 453 college admissions departments and found that "one out of five of them were looking at Facebook and MySpace or other kinds of search engines to get information on prospective students," Barnes said.

The findings from the second study were even more of a shock.

"We've known for a long time that employers have been Googling people's names and looking at applicants online," Barnes said, "we just didn't know it was happening at colleges."

The study showed that colleges were 2 percent more likely to check networking sites than employers, at 29 percent, and only slightly less prone to searching message boards and videos. More than half called these new technologies a "very important" part of gaining insight into prospective students.

What are they looking for?

For starters, they probably don't care that your favorite movie is "The Notebook" or that you just want to "dance like no one's watching." No, they're likely more concerned with the marijuana leaf pictured under "Interests" or that drawn-out diatribe in defense of drug legalization that makes up your "About Me" box.

"I think they're hoping to find nothing," Barnes said. "I think, in fact, that, just like any company, a school is looking to protect its brand, its name. And I don't think any school wants to give a prestigious scholarship, and then a week later have Internet pictures of the recipient standing on a beer keg."

Sites like Facebook and MySpace aren't their only sources, either. In fact, for some, those may not even do the most damage. For the true window to a tech-savvy teen or 20-something's soul, look no further than his or her blog, where matters political, personal and spiritual are often discussed with little attention paid to who's reading.

The UMass Dartmouth studies showed that 19 percent of workplaces searched these online journals, while a whopping 33 percent of universities do.

"I was surprised that (colleges and universities) were using blogs to the extent that they reported they were," Barnes said.

Is that legal?

Barnes noted that there's nothing inherently unethical or illegal about utilizing what is essentially a public forum.

Both employers and institutions of higher learning have every right to turn to search engines for their dirt-digging, Barnes said, calling them "another tool in the ... toolbox," no different than an application, a resume or a letter of recommendation - except that it could possibly provide a much more candid view of a candidate.

"Looking online is going to give them a very different kind of information that they can't get any other way," she said.

Barnes also said she doubts any of these overseers are abusing their use of social media, or using them to an overreaching extent.

"I think that they're using these things when they need to make a critical decision," she said, naming scholarships and restrictive programs as possible motives to snoop. "I don't think there's any school that's sitting around Googling the names of every applicant. That's certainly not happening."

Fighting back

Barnes said the responsibility to keep skeletons safely secured in closets falls solely on the individual.

"The lesson is, control what you put out there," she said.

She advised job hunters and college hopefuls with wild pasts to either use privacy settings to keep their Internet lives under lock and key or tidy up their profiles and start treating them like a back-up resume or, better yet, "a marketing tool."

"Portray yourself in a way that it helps you if, in fact, somebody does look at your profile," Barnes said, suggesting the addition of awards won, clubs and extracurricular activities, honor societies and internships.

Unfortunately, there's one possible scenario that could prove inescapable no matter what precautions are taken: mistaken identity. Barnes said that with blogs, where it's often more about what's said than what's seen, and pictures of the blogger sometimes aren't even posted, one John Smith could easily be confused for another.

"I think that's on everybody to be real careful," Barnes said. "... It's no different than any other information we find on the Internet. I think we have to be really careful about where it comes from and how valid it is."