Why your digital footprint could ruin your career
Tread carefully on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. You might do yourself out of a new job
Last month, a middle management employee working in marketing went to see a recruitment consultant. He was keen to move up the ladder, feeling that opportunities for promotion in his present workplace were severely limited. But the consultant had some very sobering news for him.
"I'd sent her my CV and thought the meeting would be about how best I could promote my skills and experience, but she spent virtually the entire appointment telling me about how much I was damaging my reputation on social media. The very first thing she said to me, once she'd shaken my hand was: 'Your digital footprint is toxic'."
To prove her point, the consultant had printed off page after page of tweets sent by the prospective job-hunter. "They made for pretty horrible reading," he says. "There were expletives everywhere, irrespective about whether I was talking about football or the state of politics in Ireland. I was throwing the f-word around like I would in the pub. It was embarrassing to see them all printed off like that."
But the consultant had other issues too: "She told me I came across as a really disgruntled, negative person who had absolutely no good to say about anyone or anything. When I read it back, that seemed to be the case. I didn't seem to be capable of tweeting unless I was annoyed about something and yet I don't think I'm like that in the normal course of a day. She said that for some companies, just seeing this sort of stuff, would be enough not to be called for an interview, despite my talents and experience.
"I spent that night deleting any tweet that could be deemed to be even slightly offensive. She told me that every time I tweeted in future, I should imagine that a prospective employer might be reading it."
Then she said something that really chilled him: "She told me that the disclaimer of 'all tweets my own, not employer's' on my Twitter biography was meaningless and that my employer would be within their rights to give me a formal warning based on some of the stuff I'd posted because they weren't just bringing me into disrepute, but my workplace too."
Mairead Fleming, MD of Ascension Executive Recruitment, says the importance of a "clean" digital footprint cannot be overstated. "I'm always surprised by the intelligent, very capable people out there who don't realise that their behaviour on social media can have a bearing on getting another job and can even affect the one they're currently in," she says.
"From a legal point of view, employers can't really be saying that they discriminated on the grounds of something you posted on Twitter, but anybody who thinks that their engagement with social media doesn't matter when it comes to recruitment is badly misguided."
Fleming recalls interviewing a prospective employee last year and admits that certain tweets put her off. "She was a lovely girl, really bright and a great conversationalist, but I had read her tweets in which she bitched about her mother and I just couldn't get that out of my head. It made me think 'if she's willing to complain about her own mother on Twitter, what else is she capable of?'" She didn't get the job.
"Then you get people bragging on Twitter and Facebook about how much alcohol they consume and they think nothing of posting pictures of themselves when they're two sheets to the wind. Is there any potential employer who would look at that and not be just a tiny bit troubled by it? When the jobs market is as competitive as it is now, why would you want to put yourself at a disadvantage before you've even got to the interview stage?"
Even those tweeters who don't offend anybody could be raising a red flag. "I'd be concerned about those people who tweet incessantly," Fleming says. "And I look through streams of tweets on any given day and think, 'Aren't they supposed to be in work? Where are they getting all this time?"
Recruiter Ken Harbourne of Wallace Myers International echoes these views on how people use Twitter but also adds his own words of warning about LinkedIn. "It can be a really good networking tool, but some people don't use it correctly. They see it as a grown-up version of Facebook and they post all kinds of nonsense on it.
"Even something as simple as the profile photo can convey the wrong message," he adds. "Rather than a professional shot with them looking their best, they think it's okay to put a camera-phone photo from a night out up there. First impressions last, and if the photo seems like an afterthought, the employer might wonder what else this potential employee is careless about."
We are still very much in the infancy of social media. Facebook and Twitter were launched in 2004 and 2006 respectively, but didn't really take off until a couple of years after that. Some would argue that the social-media rules are still being written although, increasingly, thoughtless behaviour can have long-term ramifications.
In his just-published book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson speaks to people who have had their careers wrecked and lives turned upside down when a poor joke on Twitter or an insensitive Facebook post went viral. The book illustrates in the starkest terms that off-the-cuff remarks can leave a Google trail that simply cannot be erased - despite the best efforts of consultants in the fast-growing online reputation industry.
Career management professional Rowan Manahan believes some are cottoning onto the pitfalls of oversharing on social media, but remains surprised by the large numbers who speak openly online and appear surprised about the potential career-damage that can ensue.
"I'm much more careful about what I tweet than I used to be," he says. "One of the things that is so appealing about it is how immediate it is and you can get stuff off your chest in a matter of seconds. But it can look really inappropriate when it's read in isolation."
Manahan says it's not just young college leavers who can suffer social-media faux pas. Senior executives can sometimes fail to understand the permanence of their views on Twitter et al. "I know of a case where a high-ranking individual was going for a very senior job but didn't get it because his tweets were so misogynistic in nature. He was a superb candidate in every other area, but there was no escaping the fact that he had some unpleasant and outdated views on gender."
Manahan points out that this candidate would almost certainly have been awarded the job in an age before Twitter and Facebook. "Over a sustained period of time, this person gave us an insight into his world-view on Twitter and he badly harmed his career chances as a result."
While some might be tempted to ignore social media completely, Manahan says this is not the solution either.
"Not having a digital footprint in this day and age does not look good," he says, "and people shouldn't be afraid of social media because there are so many positives to it. But you can't treat it as a forum to unload all your frustrations and petty grievances on. Think first. And then think again."