Millennials face an interesting situation: they’re the first generation to grow up in the age of online reputation. While earlier generations may have made mistakes and grown their networks without any digital footprints, Millennials have practically every step of their lives documented, whether on Instagram, school websites, news stories, or their very own blogs and social media profiles.
In some ways, this is a good thing: Millennials have the opportunity to build a positive online reputation from a young age. They can begin establishing a strong online persona, becoming interactive and developing an online brand and network that they can nurture over the years.
At the same time, Millennials are at risk of making very public mistakes that may not ever be forgotten by the Internet. Those mistakes can haunt them for the rest of their lives as they establish businesses and hunt for jobs.
But this begs a rather large question: do Millennials even care about their reputation? It’s not entirely clear, and the best (but not at all definitive) answer is that it depends.
Research from Weber Shandwick and the Institute for Public Relations tells us that Millennials are much more aware of their reputations at work than previous generations. While 37% of Gen Xers and 26% of Baby Boomers think about their reputation “all or most of the time,” 47% of Millennials do.
Millennials may be aware of their reputation, but is online reputation management something they truly care about? We asked experts to share their perspective, and while they agree that millennials understand how important reputation is, they don’t agree on whether Millennials care about their reputation or take action to positively maintain them.
Why Millennials Don’t Care About Their Reputation
Reputation is nothing new, and managing a reputation is something that older generations have had to deal with long before the Internet came about. Some believe that while online reputations have raised awareness of the need for maintaining a positive reputation, they haven’t changed the maturity level that is needed to actually care about them.
“Growing up in the age of online reputation has not made Millennials care about reputation any more or any earlier than older generations.” says Aaron McDaniel with AccessInvest. “Just like Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, Millennials are (or will soon) come to understand the importance of building a reputation.”
“Concern for reputation comes with maturity, in the past, today and in the future,” explains McDaniel.
But he points out that the reputation game is different for Millennials than it was for older generations. While in the past, it was easier to downplay an ill advised action, but now it is difficult to control your reputation after a slip up, thanks to social media and the herd mentality that so often destroys reputations in a matter of moments. And with the endless memory of the Internet, it’s tough to move past incidents when they’re stored online forever and never really go away.
Millennials Do Care About Their Reputation — But Only When They Need It
Others believe that Millennials aren’t much different than any other generations when it comes to caring about their reputation. Like so many others, Millennials may not be fully aware of or concerned with maintaining a good reputation until they have a problem, or when they need to draw upon their reputation as a resource.
Attorney James Goodnow, a Millennial himself, has observed that Millennials often don’t fully consider reputational cost until they get into the professional workforce, if even then.
But sometimes, says Goodnow, that consideration comes too late: “I’ve seen through first-hand litigation that online comments are often posted with disregard for long-term consequences. Until the comment is blown up on a screen in front of a jury, some Millennials don’t seem to fully appreciate the dangers of their online reputations and posts.”
Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide says that often, Millennials seem surprisingly unfazed by an online indiscretion. However, they care when it becomes an inconvenience.
“The challenge happens when online meets reality,” says Cohen. “Millennials who work, or want to work, for traditional companies find that a behavior or activity that seems perfectly legitimate may be cause for concern by their current or future employer.”
Cohen shares the unfortunate story of a Millennial client confronted with a difficult reputation challenge:
“One of my clients, a woman in her 20s, worked for a conservative money manager. She was fired when embarrassing photos of her were posted online by an ex boyfriend. Despite the fact that the photos were taken in private and a number of years prior in college, HR explained that the firm could not risk the embarrassment if clients were to discover the photos. Their clients expected the firm and its employees to maintain the highest standards for good judgment and protocol — and that these photos were evidence of the opposite. They also felt that some of their clients could potentially put this young woman in an awkward position by asking for more in the way of client and customer “service.”
My client was unwilling to accept that online and offline behaviors were subject to the same standards. She also thought it was just dumb and a generational anachronism — a sign that her employer was a dinosaur. The lesson: if you care about your job and your company cares about its reputation, then you have no choice but to toe the party line when it comes to social media and what gets posted about you.
Whether or Not They Care About Reputation, Millennials Are Aware of It
As we’ve seen in research and in practice, Millennials are keenly aware of the fact that their reputation matters. But it’s a different story as to whether or not they act on this knowledge.
“Millennials literally grew up with technology and don’t know what life is like without it,” says LuRae Lumpkin, CEO and founder of MindfulBusiness.guru. “The Internet, cell phones, text messaging, and email all came into existence as they were coming into the world. They are also the first generation to experience cyber-bullying.”
“This is the first generation to experience HR job reference checking via Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn as first points of perspective when many companies look at a candidate for hire,” Lumpkin continues. “Nevertheless, Millennials appear to be keenly aware about what their online reputation says about them. Ultimately, personality and ambition ultimately play a role in how much they actually care about what appears and is visible about them online.”
But while Millennials may be aware of how reputation is important in the big picture, day to day actions don’t always reflect this understanding. “So much of our life is now shared online, there can be little regard to how we articulate ourselves on social media, especially Twitter and other sites where there’s a very real history being created,” says Mark with Uncorked Adventures.
Millennials Do Care About Their Reputation — More Than Any Other Generation
Some experts aren’t convinced that Millennials have a grasp on managing their online reputation, but other experts believe that this generation is not only more aware of reputation, but more responsible with building their reputation both online and off. They have seen that millennials take an active role in managing their reputation, and many are doing it well.
Seth Waite, a Millennial and chief marketing officer at RevUnit.com recognizes that reputation has never mattered more than it does today, and that Millennials understand more than others the importance of building a positive reputation.
“As a professional, I now have to manage LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media profiles along with a personal website and any other review sites which might mention my work history or private life,” says Waite. “No longer can professionals just worry about being professional at work, because your private life is accessible to co-workers, clients, and hiring managers. Millennials have had hard times getting jobs coming out of college. So nobody knows how important it is curate your image like Millennials.”
Digital video and image producer Edward Sturm insists that you only need to take a quick look at social media to see how involved Millennials are in building their online reputation.
“Millennials very much care about their reputations,” says Sturm. “They (myself included), use Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to carefully craft their reputations so that people believe them to always be positive, socially conscious, fun loving, and adventurous. This is done mainly with photos and content that they share. Browse your newsfeed for even 30-seconds and you will see this- pictures of places they’re traveling to, fun they’re having, and links to causes they support.”
Millennial Reputation As Seen by Recruiters
This trend of Millennial online reputation responsibility is seen not just by Millennials themselves, but by recruiters as well. Dr. Steven Lindner, executive partner of The WorkPlace Group says that Millennials have a strong awareness of their online reputation, and they manage it pretty well.
“They actively manage their reputations so that they appear they want to appear and be seen,” notes Lindner, who adds that typically, younger Millennials are more cautious about what they put out there.
As a recruiter, he’s seen Millennials set a good example for management of online reputation: “Many Millennials have social reputations through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.” says Lindner. “Millennials are consciously aware that it is easy for recruiters and potential employers to view them. Many of them do a fairly good job of using social media to showcase their work, express their views and their passions, and present themselves publicly in a positive light.”
And from an employer’s perspective, it’s smart for Millennials to manage their reputations in this way, because if it’s online, they will find it, and it may influence hiring decisions.
“If a candidate puts something out there publicly, it is fair game for us to consider it while we are evaluating them,” explains Lindner. “Social media posts can use data points from different from what’s on a resume or cover letter. There are now a lot more places I can find out information about job seekers.”
While many focus on the dangers of social media and online footprints in a job search, the fact is that your online activity can help in a job search. Millennials are now aware of that, and many are using it to their advantage.
“They may put out statements like, “I am looking for a new opportunity,” or, “I am graduating next month with a degree in chemistry,” says Lindner. “Thus, recruiters are able to obtain information that they might not otherwise know because of a LinkedIn post or a tweet. This helps provide insights of what drives someone and what their leadership style might be — things you won’t find out through a resume or cover letter.”
But Lindner cautions that the Internet can act as a fact checker as well, so Millennials should be aware that their online reputation may be used to verify information.
“Social media allows potential employers to find out if what a candidate is saying on a resume is true,” says Lindner. “If someone claims they organized a charitable event, recruiters can find proof of it by searching for photographs of the events. This encourages people to be more authentic.”
Millennials Need to Maintain a Positive Reputation
It’s not entirely clear whether or not Millennials care enough about their reputation to take action on it, but it is clear that they should. Sure, with more than 3 billion people online, it’s easy to assume that you can just fade into the crowd of the Internet. But with increasingly intelligent search tools and a memory that never forgets, there really is no hiding online. And for Millennials that are concerned with building a successful career, building a positive online reputation is a cornerstone of their future.