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The ultimate guide to managing your digital footprint
Your tweets live on forever: clean up your digital footprint to make sure your online presence works in your favour when it comes to landing that graduate job.
Defining the digital footprint
With the average Australian aged 18–24 spending almost 14 hours a week on social media, it’s no surprise that many of them have created an online version of themselves that exists apart from the real-life graduate who’s hoping for acceptance into a competitive graduate career. This online ghost–one’s ‘digital footprint’– comprises of all the online data that’s associated with you, from photos and text posts on social media platforms to aggregated information about your browsing and online shopping habits. And unfortunately, just like a more conventional phantom, this online ghost can come back to haunt you: especially if recruiters happen across something that reflects poorly on your character and conduct.
But how likely is that to happen? Will recruiters really enter your name into Google or Facebook and see what they can dredge up? The short answer is yes: a 2017 survey of 2,300 hiring managers and human resource professionals found that 70 percent of them regularly screened prospective employees using social media. Moreover, some 53 percent of them had disqualified candidates based on publicly accessible social media content including ‘provocative or inappropriate photographs, videos or information’ (39 percent), evidence of drinking or drug use (38 percent), discriminatory comments (32 percent), and evidence that the candidate had lied about their qualifications (27 percent). About 17 percent had even ruled out a candidate for ‘posting too frequently’.
Importantly, the survey also revealed that the likelihood of an employer turning to online sleuthing for additional information about a candidate is only increasing: the 70 percent who do so today represent an enormous increase on the 11 percent who did so in 2006. Hence, it’s clear that your online activities can have a huge bearing on your offline opportunities: so how best to keep the two separate and avoid embarrassing interview questions or unexplained dead ends? We hope this guide tells you everything you need to know to do just that.
Step one: take the measure of your digital footprint
There are various ways to find out what the internet ‘knows’ about you. Below, we’ll explore how to review and manage the information collected by specific popular sites. For now though, it’s helpful to get a general sense of what’s out there, and the easiest way to start is by entering your own name into Google. Take note of what (if anything) turns up, making sure to click beyond the first page and jot down any websites you may need to check later on (for example, the Myspace page you haven’t used in ten years or a question you posted under your own name once on a legal advice website).
Next, visit pipl.com, which connects people with the aggregated data collected by various advertising companies. Again, enter your name, hit search, and see what comes up. Finally, use the Salt Social Profile Checker to track down anything you might have missed: it’s a secure service that will use your name, as well as various keywords associated with your name, to search Google, Google Images, and about 200 social platforms. Note whether or not you find any obsolete or unused social media accounts: for example, the most efficient way to ‘manage’ a Myspace account that you haven’t used in several years is simply to shut it down.
Step two: manage your digital footprint on individual websites and social media platforms
Facebook is a social media platform that is also a digital surveillance behemoth. Its business model is ‘based on users passively delivering personal data’, with that data ‘used to target advertising to them based on their interests, habits, and so forth’ (98 percent of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertisers). As a result, Facebook harvests an enormous amount of data about each user: you can see exactly how much by downloading a copy of its dossier on you.
Of course, the information that Facebook has about you isn’t necessarily available to other people. That’s why the most important step you can take towards managing how much recruiters can find out about your Facebook activity is to tweak your privacy settings. Click on the down arrow to the right of your name in the top-right of any Facebook screen and click on settings. Then navigate to ‘Privacy’ and adjust the settings to limit who can access your profile. Afterwards, click the question mark next to your name and select ‘Privacy Checkup’ to review what other people can see.
If you feel uncomfortable making your profile private (or simply don’t want to), then at least ensure that what’s available for all to see won’t count against you. Review your photos and untag (or make private) any that an employer might frown upon. Audit the pages and products that you ‘like’ and ensure that employers won’t use these preferences to reconstruct an individual that no rational person would hire. Most importantly, be mindful of what you post (this includes comments, photos, status updates, and more): if you’re going to let people see everything you do online, then you need to be prepared to take responsibility for all of it too.
Google knows what you did last summer; it knows what you’re doing this summer; and it can probably guess accurately at what you’ll do during summers that haven’t yet come to pass. This is because Google collects information about what you search for, where you go, what your voice sounds like (if you talk to Android devices), what you watch on Youtube, which websites you visit while logged into Google, and much more besides.
Fortunately, recruiters won’t be able to access all of this information. However, they will be able to see the same things you found upon searching your own name. If you think there’s something there that will jeopardize your chances with a stringent employer, you’ve essentially got two options. First, you can contact the webmaster of the sit upon which the incriminating data is hosted. Alternatively, you can contact Google itself, but only if the data in question is covered by Google’s Removals Policy.
For a cautionary tale of the ways in which errant tweets can hamper (or destroy) your career, look no further than Justine Sacco. In 2013, before boarding a plane from New York to South Africa, Ms. Sacco posted a controversial tweet about the probability of her contracting AIDS as a white person. Within hours, the tweet had become viral, and so had a hashtag that drew attention to Justine Sacco’s blissful ignorance as she slept aboard her flight: #HasJustineLandedYet.
When she did touch down in Cape Town, nothing was the same: Sacco turned on her phone to discover that she was the world’s number one trending topic and a social pariah, disavowed by friends, fired by her employer, and faced with a torrent of vitriol directed at her by millions of strangers. As one of them tweeted: “Sorry @JustineSacco, your tweet lives on forever.”
Reader, take note: your tweets live on forever. So, consider what you tweet: don’t post information that you wouldn’t want shared with future employers, even if you choose to protect your tweets. Fact check what you share, and reconsider who you follow (and who follows you): your decision to follow somebody will be seen as a tacit endorsement of the things that person posts, so, if you’re following a controversial political organisation or something anything risky, block them immediately.
On which point, protect your tweets by following these instructions from the Twitter help center. Finally, conduct an audit of your past tweets and delete or ‘protect’ any that you feel may raise questions with future employers.
A picture tells a thousand words and, as far as prospective employers are concerned, those words should be things like “productive”, “upstanding”, and “respectable”. If other words might spring to an interviewer’s mind upon viewing your Instagram, then limit its visibility so only approved followers can see your photos. You can do this by managing the privacy settings on your account. Bear in mind that, if you have a private profile, then hashtagged photos will not be searchable on Instagram. However, other users will be able to see if you’ve liked another user’s photo, and comments are also public if posted beneath the photo of somebody with a public profile. Of course, it’s also a good idea to be prudent about the photos you share on Instagram, even if you make your account private. Remember: what is published online is published forever.
Apple is not as significant a liability as the social media websites when it comes to securing employment: there is less to be seen and Apple has a more unambiguous commitment to user privacy. Nevertheless, in the light of high profile leaks, it’s worth considering the possibility that your data could enter the public domain. You can visit your privacy settings page to request a report on what information Apple has about you and, if necessary, restrict parts of your Apple account.
Step three: build a positive online reputation
Managing your digital footprint isn’t just about making sure employers don’t stumble across photographic evidence of your uni break shenanigans. It’s also about increasing the chances that they’ll find things that reflect well on you. In fact, according to the Career Builders survey, 57 percent of hiring managers are less likely to interview a candidate they can't find online. For those candidates who do have an online presence, certain things can increase their chances of getting a job. Some 44 percent of employers had hired a person based on online evidence of certain traits, such as information supporting their professional qualifications (38 percent), great communication skills (37 percent), a professional image (36 percent), and creativity (35 percent).
So, here are two ways to boost the chances of employers coming across something that you want them to see. First, consider creating a personal website that you can use to describe your skills and experience, share a portfolio of work (if you plan to work as a creative, programmer, graphic designer, and so on), draw attention to any academic accomplishments, or simply reinforce your image as a young professional committed to success.
Your website needn’t be elaborate or full of information: it can simply serve the same purpose as a business card, letting employers know who you are, what you can do, and whether or not you’re determined to maintain a degree of professionalism. If you’re unfamiliar with website design, services like Wix, WordPress, GoDaddy, and Squarespace make it simple.
Second, if you haven’t created a LinkedIn account yet, consider joining the website: it’s one of the first places that prospective employers will check when trying to verify aspects of your application, learn more about your skills, get a sense of your personality, and review any testimonials (LinkedIn allows ex-colleagues and employees to post written recommendations and ‘endorse’ your claim to certain skills). There is a whole industry built around providing people with the information they need to build a job-attracting LinkedIn profile, but, to get you started, here are some basic tips:
- Upload a professional photo in which you’re dressed just as you would be for a day at work. No selfies.
- Include a current job even if you’re currently unemployed (‘job titles’ like ‘Engineering Graduate Seeking New Opportunities’ will boost your search ranking and alert employers to your availability).
- Add projects, volunteer experiences, and languages. You mightn’t think that your fluency in, say, Mandarin, or the fact that you studied Italian in high school, is relevant to your job, but it needn’t be: instead, it could give you a boost by demonstrating that you have unique skills and a well-rounded cultural outlook.
- When it comes to skills, pick those which are (a) most relevant to the career you’d like to build for yourself and (b) most likely to be endorsed by people who know you or have worked with you.
- Be specific about your achievements. For example, instead of describing yourself as a ‘natural salesperson’, provide hard data about exactly how many sales you made during your summer internship at We Sell Things Inc.
- Inject a little personality into your profile. In many ways, it’s like an online resume, and certainly designed to complement the application you’ll be sending to employers. However, it shouldn’t be exactly the same as your resume: it should add something more, letting employers know not only who you are as an employee but, also, who you are as a person. Which causes do you care about? Are you extroverted or introverted? What are your passions outside of work?
- As with more conventional social media platforms, exercise discretion when using LinkedIn by avoiding any content that might reflect poorly on you. It bears repeating: what is published online is published forever. So publish only what you can bear to have your future employers read or see.
What if I have an unusually negative digital footprint?
Hopefully nothing too scandalous or unmanageable appears when you Google your own name or check what’s available to employers who search for you on social media. But what if there is? What if employers see your name attached to an embarrassing blog post that you can never take down? Or an unflattering news story? What if, like Justine Sacco, you once posted a dumb tweet that will overshadow your online presence for the rest of time? Take a deep breath. You’re in a crummy situation, yes, but there are still things you can do to take back control of your digital reputation.
First, if some aspect of your online persona is particularly incriminating, and destined to be found by savvy employers, then address it directly or indirectly while building your positive reputation (i.e on LinkedIn or on your personal website). Demonstrate that you’re not the same person who made an ill-advised comment online ten years ago, or was photographed throwing up at a music festival, or posted a series of blogs arguing that the Harry Potter movies are better than the books. Admit that you made a mistake, but emphasise that you learned from it—and that the experience should strengthen, not diminish, your candidacy for future jobs. The tendency to make mistakes is human and forgivable; but the self-righteous determination to ignore them, deny them, or fail to learn anything from them is optional and will not endear you to recruiters.
Second, apply the advice contained above (in step three) more aggressively by producing positive content at regular intervals. Because search engines like Google tend to assign higher ranks to newer content (and web pages), as well as content that generates engagement (in the form of page views or comments), you can give yourself an advantage by committing to a regular publication schedule on sites like LinkedIn. Yes, you really can bury your past beneath mountains of fresh content: all you need to do is push it to page three of Google, which, in all but the most desperate situations, nobody will ever look at.
Finally, if you really do need a hand managing your digital footprint, there are various agencies that specialise in helping people give themselves a positive online boost. Such agencies include Status Labs, My Reputation Management, Reputation One, and Online Reputation Management Australia. Of course, such services come at a price, so you should consider them only if you really did rob a bank and don’t want future employers to know about it. Otherwise, following the steps above should be enough to ensure that there’s nothing floating around online that might bomb your next job application.
Moving ahead: staying on top of your digital footprint
It may seem that managing your digital footprint is more complicated than you first thought: but that’s only true the first time you conduct an online spring clean. Afterwards, preserving a positive online presence is a matter of ongoing maintenance: even once you’ve gained employment, everything you post will contribute to your digital reputation.
So, be mindful of what you’re sharing with the world about yourself, and regularly audit your reputation by following the instructions above (in step one). That is, Google yourself, check your privacy settings, and hide any digital ‘blemishes’ that you’d rather the world didn’t see. This way, you can approach future job applications with confidence, secure in the knowledge that recruiters won’t unearth anything embarrassing or difficult to explain.
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