In today’s job market, it’s not enough to have the right education, experience, and qualifications: now, a great online reputation is another essential for job seekers to bring to the table. Companies want to know that they’re hiring employees with good judgement, clean backgrounds, and positive online interactions.
Consider these statistics from CEB:
- Recruiting spends roughly 5% of its budget on social media.
- 87% of recruiting organizations forecast increasing their usage of professional networking sites (e.g., LinkedIn, Jobster) in 2014.
- 71% of recruiting organizations forecast increasing their usage of social networking sites (e..g., Facebook, Twitter) in 2014.
- 24% of HR professionals in a recent survey responded that recruiters/hiring managers at their organization are allowed to use social media information to make decisions about candidates.
- 42% allow decisions to be made based on professional networking information.
With this in mind, it’s clear that job seekers need to develop an online reputation that can leave a positive impression on recruiters, hiring managers, and companies. We asked several career professionals about reputation management for job seekers, and they shared important insights with us: why employers value a strong online reputation, reasons why candidates may be researched — and when you should expect to be checked out online, what hiring managers are looking for, and several ways you can develop a positive online reputation that will help you lock down job offers.
Employers Value a Strong Online Reputation
Do hiring managers care about your online reputation? Every career expert we talked to answered with an enthusiastic yes!
“They absolutely do care,” says talent consultant Jim Ice. “The cost of a bad hire is reported to be 5 to 24 times salary so they can not afford not to care. Most employees do not fail based on their technical skills but on their social and personal skills – or in other words ‘reputation.'”
Online candidate research happens all the time, and for many companies, it’s not a matter of curiosity or being nosy, just a part of doing business. “Smart hiring managers (and candidates) search for potential interviewees online all of the time,” says The Constant Professional founder Andrea Berkman. “Ultimately, searching for candidates online is considered part of due diligence in today’s market, whether or not it’s fair to the candidate.”
Why Employers Research Candidates (And When You Should Expect It)
Employers often research candidates because with every hire, their own reputations are on the line. Every employee is representative of the company, and hiring a professional with a bad reputation or poor judgement puts the reputation of the entire company at risk. Make the wrong decision, and it could reflect poorly on the company, not to mention waste the candidate’s (and company’s) time and resources on a bad hire. They perform research to make sure that each employee will be a good fit — not an embarrassment — for the company.
“No one wants to risk hiring an applicant who shows poor judgment in how they represent themselves because it would bring into question their own responsibility and judgment,” says executive coach Dennis O’Neill.
Butterflyvista career coach Sarah M. Weinberger relates her own experience in online candidate research:
I was corresponding with a candidate on LinkedIn. His resume and profile looked good. I then decided to check out his Facebook page. I am glad that I did. This person had a swastika and neo-Nazi symbols as his backdrop on his Facebook page along with a different photo, still him. He was obviously a not-so-closeted neo-Nazi.
Weinberger explains, “After an employer hires someone, it is much harder and costlier to backtrack. You have to start over again. It is simply doing due-diligence on the part of the manager or human resources manager to gather the facts on a candidate, all of it and make an informed decision. Information never hurts; just the lack of it.”
For most employers, checking out candidates online is done simply to add another layer of research and understanding of the people they may hire. “Checking on an individual’s on-line profile allows the prospective employer to determine, beyond the words and phrases spoken at the interview, the references that may be checked as well as claimed work and educational achievements, if there are any potential “land mines” out there,” says Compass HR Consulting founder Fred Cooper.
Careeranista author Chaz Pitts-Kyser agrees. “While one’s resume highlights the many positive things about an applicant, what someone has on the world wide web often says just as much, if not more, about their professionalism and personality.
Cooper also explains that reputation works in both directions, and that’s why it’s important that every potential employee is carefully vetted. “And as customers become more adept at using social media resources, they may research that “new customer service rep” or salesperson and individual added to the company’s website,” says Cooper. “Should they find party pictures or posts of questionable propriety, that loyal customer may then begin to question the overall reputation of the company that now employs this individual.”
Employers are also looking for candidates with a good fit. Researching candidates online allows them to find candidates that have personalities or values that may clash with company culture.
“The red flags that we look for are any lewd or inappropriate posts, as well as posts where the candidate may have spoken negatively of his or her previous employer,” says GovernmentAuctions.com cofounder and CEO Ian Aronovich. “Our goal as a company is for a drama-free environment and people who constantly voice their negative or inappropriate opinions on social media platforms simply have to place in our company. The best advice we could give to any person looking for a job and who’s active in social media is to watch what they say. There is a distinct difference between being opinionated and being a negative Nancy, and no hiring manager wants to deal with the latter.”
When Do Companies Research Candidates?
Candidates should always be prepared to have their online reputation researched. O’Neill insists, “You have to assume that online reputation is always checked. In most corporate settings, the HR recruiter who is filling the job for the hiring manager does the online reputation checks. Like checking the candidate’s references, it is handled by HR and often under the law department’s guidelines.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean every candidate receives an online checkup before an interview or hiring offer. Some companies prefer to save time and resources by waiting until they’ve narrowed down the field of candidates or are ready to extend a hiring offer.
“I would say that most recruiters and hiring managers will not Google applicants, but will check out a smaller number of candidates or finalists,” says Joblink executive director Elliot D. Lasson.
Hiring managers may also want to perform additional research on candidates when they have a reason to be suspicious, explains recruiter Tracey Russell. “This is either due to an inconsistency in their resume or when something on a candidate’s resume looks too good to be true.”
Companies that wait until later in the hiring process will reserve research until they’re considering making an offer. “A Google search is normally done around the time a background check is being done to see if there are any skeletons in their closet that the background check might miss,” says Russell. “A Google search may be done right when a hiring manager is considering moving them to the next stage in the hiring process. This is done so they are not wasting their time interviewing the candidate if something negative turns up.”
Individuals seeking sensitive positions are especially likely to be researched online. “It is a particular issue for individuals who interview for jobs which require absolute and undivided good judgement such as customer service, police enforcement, healthcare, and banking,” explains career counselor and executive coach Roy Cohen. “These sorts of jobs involve extensive client contact, critical decision-making, and frequent access to sensitive resources or information.”
What Hiring Managers Want to Find Online
When researching candidates online, hiring managers are primarily on the alert for any major red flags that may tell them a candidate lacks good judgement or maturity. Problems like legal issues, lewd language, embarrassing photos, and complaints about current and former employers are at the top of the list for most companies. Finding an issue like this often makes the difference between moving on in the hiring process and complete dismissal of a candidate.
“As a hiring manager I would not hire someone who posted overly prejudiced things online, since that would signal that they may be unable to work on a diverse team,” says Total Engagement Consulting president Stan Kimer.
Other important issues include inconsistencies with a candidate’s resume, or social media red flags. Lasson identifies these as photos of drinking or partying, disparaging comments about employers or vulgar language, or criminal charges.
Ice explains that social media is an especially good resource for finding out more about the true identity of a candidate, identifying social media research as “an excellent way to see who this individual really is when they are not hiding behind the curtains of crafted resumes, template cover letters and best behavior interviews.”
Some hiring managers, like LegalAdvice.com founder and CEO David Reischer, don’t consider issues of temporarily poor judgement or immaturity to be as troubling as patterns that may indicate a more serious problem. “Provocative photos or inappropriate comments tend to indicate a person lacks the requisite self censoring capability to screen their own thoughts and make intelligent decisions about how their online behavior is perceived,” says Reischer. “These red flags usually relate to maturity level, but if there are sufficient examples, they can absolutely influence a decision to not hire a considered candidate.”
“Sometimes, however, the red flag behavior will transgress into a higher order of unacceptability related to truly unprofessional behavior or even personality problems,” Reischer explains. “A pattern of obscenity, or persistent expressions of an uncivil nature or other moral character failings is not just a momentary mistake of judgment. These red flags are sufficient reason to not hire a candidate.
But as Pitts-Kyser points out, red flags aren’t all that hiring managers are looking for. “What an HR manager finds can end up making them more interested in a person, such as well-written blogs pertaining to issues in their field or a slew of glowing recommendations on Linkedin.”
Russell explains that hiring managers are also researching to find out if candidates are involved in their community, and active in promoting themselves or their current company.
Employers are also interested in finding out if you’re influential. LunaMetrics manager of search Andrew Garberson wants to know if candidates qualify as influencers in their industry. “Influencer has become one of the defining terms of 2014 because we understand the size of a social audience means little if no one is listening,” says Garberson. “As an employer, I Google someone looking for a sign of industry influence.
PeopleG2 founder and CEO Chris Dyer has found that what hiring managers look for often depends on the level of the position they are hiring for. Research may be different for executive level employees and junior level ones. In Dyer’s experience, “employers are looking for positive info about executives and looking for negative info about those in lower-level positions.”
Why the difference between these two levels of job candidates? “Employers seem to look for validation that executives have moved a previous business forward, represented her- or himself as a thought leader, or improved a brand,” says Dyer. “Employers looking for lower-level candidates search more for red flags that show evidence that previous behavior or comments could impact the reputation, liability or productivity of a company poorly.”
Is Candidate Research Legal (or Fair)?
Though it’s clear many companies have made a practice of researching candidates online before extending a job offer, it’s not entirely clear whether this practice is legally acceptable. Dyer explains that online candidate research is a highly controversial issue that may cause trouble for companies that do not conduct searches carefully and responsibly.
“Employers could easily come upon protected class information and unwittingly violate laws regarding their inclusion when hiring,” warns Dyer. “Although a CareerBuilder survey last year showed that more than 40% of hiring managers who responded (more than 2000) made decisions not to hire applicants based on information they had found online, it’s generally difficult to get specific details from HR executives about their online research since the legality of that research is questionable.
If you feel that you’ve been denied a position based on protected class information that an employer may have found online, you have rights — and you may have a case. Visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to find out which classes are protected, learn about prohibited practices, and understand the law.
How Job Candidates Can Develop a Positive Online Reputation
With so many hiring managers, recruiters, and companies investigating candidates online during the hiring process, it’s essential for job seekers to develop a positive online reputation — or at least wipe out any major red flags that might spell trouble for a job offer. How can you make sure that hiring managers find information that helps you get a job? It’s as simple as cleaning up profiles and becoming active online in a way that positively reflects your personality.
- Watch what you say and post on social media: Ice has simple advice for professionals who are active on social media: “Don’t post anything you would not put on a resume or discuss in an interview, or want your mother to know.” The same goes for unflattering or embarrassing photos.
- Consider how your message might be received: It’s also important to remember that even seemingly innocent photos or statements may be seen differently than you think. It’s always a good idea to have someone else take a look at your online profiles and search engine results to get their perspective on the persona hiring managers will find. Cooper cautions that anything you post “can and most likely will be analyzed and assessed and evaluated by the “lens” of the viewer. Therefore, post pictures, comments, observations, statements, opinions, at your own risk. You don’t know how what you put out there will be perceived.”
- Don’t lie: Hiring managers often check online profiles and other sources to verify the information you’ve shared on your resume. Dyer cautions specifically against lying about accomplishments at work or represent departmental or group accomplishments as purely individual achievements. Similarly, it’s important not to omit major job positions from your resume or background information, as discrepancies in work history can signal a major red flag.
- Keep political or religious views to yourself: Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, but remember that what you say may be offensive or upsetting to others. It’s best to keep quiet on these issues, says Dyer, especially on professional sites like LinkedIn.
- Pay attention to spelling and grammar: While not as important as avoiding embarrassing photos and lewd or offensive posts, spelling and grammar can make a difference. Show you’re professional by double checking your online writing, including social media posts.
- Take a look at your friends list: Kimer often advises job seekers to unfriend any unsavory characters they may be connected to online. Drug dealers or anyone with a criminal record may reflect poorly on you. Kimer shares that job applicants may be judged by the company they keep, even online.
- Show that you’re an industry leader: Hiring managers aren’t just looking for trouble; they want to see positive signs as well. Garberson shares that one of the best ways to put your best foot forward is to develop leadership in your industry. Be visible to employers by connecting with them on your active networks, participate in industry conversations on Twitter, Google+, or local groups, invest your energy in 1-3 active networks, and measure how well you’re doing with it all using influence tools like Klout.