Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Pitfalls of online profiles

ONLINE profiles might help you get dates, but could they keep you from getting a job?

Tim DeMello, chief executive of a company that manages online profiles for professionals, thinks so.

“Most employers these days do some level of due diligence” about the people they hire, DeMello says. At the very least, they drop prospective employees’ names into search engines such as Google and Yahoo. Many take things a step further and search for profiles in sites such as Friendster, MySpace, LiveJournal and Facebook.

(And please, save the arguments about employers “violating your privacy’’ by looking at these sites. It’s on the Internet, for goodness’ sake.)

With so many sites offering free spaces to carve out your online identity, it’s certainly easy to put your name out there—not to mention gender, home town, occupation, alma mater, taste in music and preference for tall, dark-haired guys with no middle initial.

And it’s easy to see the benefits of creating an online profile. It makes you easy to find, placing you just one Google search away from long-lost buddies and prospective employers who want to hire someone with just your resume.

The downside? Well, online profiles make you easy to find. And not just your resume, which is why you have to be careful about what you post. That four-year-old party picture of you doing a keg stand could some day cost you a dream job.

DeMello says it’s important to consider two things when you are creating an online profile: the content in the profile and the site where you choose to present it.

Post neutral information

Keep the information in your online profile as neutral as possible, with an emphasis on professional information, not personal details, DeMello says. Focus on your academic activities, your resume and your professional goals. “You don’t have to be overly secretive,” he says, but don’t be careless, either. It’s fine to mention hobbies, but don’t get into all the romance stuff. If you include a photo, choose something fairly conservative and flattering, nothing in which you are scantily clad or holding a drink—or worse, a bong.

Site matters too

Where you post your profile also matters. Did your mom ever warn you that people would judge you by the company you keep? That applies to the Web, as well. Even if your online profile is squeaky clean, your image could be affected by where you post the profile and what kind of information your friends include in their profiles, which are linked to yours. The most popular social sites, such as Friendster and MySpace, thrive on a free-wheeling, anything-goes culture. Looking at the crazy stuff people post about themselves is part of the appeal of surfing those sites.

But DeMello’s company is banking on people’s desire to maintain professional profiles in the company of other professional profiles. His site hosts about 3 million profiles, which he says represents a “flight to safety.” His company reviews each profile as it comes in and relies on a certain degree of self-policing by the community.

Young workers have adopted strategies for managing their own images online.

Meghan Sutherland, 33, a legal assistant, says she doesn’t try to hide who she is online but takes great care not to put anything on her Friendster and MySpace accounts that would make her look bad to a prospective boss—or worse, her mom. “I’m very careful not to post anything that would make me look irresponsible.”

She says she cringes when she sees some of the stuff people put on their sites, such as semi-nude photos or images of them using drugs. “There’s no way you can explain that away,” she says.

Grace Mitchell, 26, a contractor, says an incident a couple of years ago in which someone copied posts off her blog and a message board and sent them to her boss and a professor made her realise it was pointless to try to differentiate between real life and the online world. Like Sutherland, she is careful about what she posts in her profiles, but she doesn’t want to give up her online connections. She says the only potentially controversial thing she includes is information about her political beliefs. “But I’m not in the market for jobs in which my politics would be a problem,” she feels.

Lots of people, though, are still clueless about the damage that online profiles can do to their careers, including one who should have known better, a former intern for DeMello. That young man, DeMello says, was spending a lot of time goofing off at work and had the nerve to brag about it in his online profile, including mentioning the company by name. When he was confronted about all the time he was wasting, he denied it at first until he was pointed directly to the offending profile.

His response? “I guess I better leave now,’” DeMello recalls. And he did.

— Mary Ellen Slayter LA Times-Washington Post