How to clean up your embarrassing online presence and get a job

Probably not a great idea to tag this one.

You used to have just one resume:  it was paper, you controlled everything in it, and you gave it to hiring personnel.  You got to choose exactly how to present yourself.  For better or worse, that period in hiring history is now over.  Today, you have two resumes:  the traditional one that you carefully write and edit and distribute, and the nontraditional, digital one that’s the sum of your online activities.  Many hiring personnel will look at both. Read on for our advice on putting your best foot forward online.

Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware of how public their digital selves are.  Job seekers can no longer afford to neglect their digital resumes.  Employers want to know as much as they can about you, and the trail of activity you leave behind you on the Internet gives them a much more detailed view into your life than a carefully-worded resume does.  Think of it strategically:  you now have another channel through which to present yourself.

Are employers really Googling applicants?

Yep. A 2012 CareerBuilder survey found that 37% of employers check social networks, and there’s a budding industry of social media background check companies, such as Social Intelligence, to streamline the process.  Social Intelligence reports your social media activity up to 7 years after it happened.  It’s hard to evolve and mature when you’re being judged on Facebook posts you made 7 years ago.  In rare cases, employers ask potential hires for their Facebook login information as part of the hiring process. 

What factors should you consider when deciding whether or not to post something online?

You want to balance the positives of social networking, like expressing yourself and connecting with people, against the risks.  One-third of employers who check social media in hiring have passed on a candidate because of something negative they found in the process. Assume that everything you post is public or will end up public.  Ask yourself if you’d be comfortable with it being in a major newspaper next to your name.  

What does it mean for something to be objectionable?  It depends on the workplace culture of the employer you’re interviewing with, but always ask yourself if it’s something you would do in the office or at work, or that you can imagine other employers doing.  If the answer is no, de-tag, delete, or don’t post.  Here are some general guidelines, with particular emphasis on photos:

  • Apply the highest standards to your profile pictures.  These are the ones that employers are most likely to see, especially because you cannot make them private in many cases (like on Facebook).
  • Focusing on drinking = bad.  One glass of wine in your hand or a beer in the background is probably fine, but you holding 3 shots up to your face isn’t.
  • No drugs or drug paraphernalia.
  • No sexually explicit or overly suggestive photos.
  • Please don’t document your makeout/hookup through tags.

Also keep in mind that certain posts are content are riskier than others.  Of hiring managers who declined to hire a candidate, 49% of them did so because of provocative or generally inappropriate photos and posts, while excessive drinking or drug use came in behind at 45%.  Poor communication skills, like misspellings and bad grammar, came in at 35%.  Thirty-three percent of hiring managers didn’t choose a candidate because that person had publicly badmouthed a previous employe; 28% for discriminatory comments about gender, religion, or race; and 22% for lying about qualifications.

Spelling and grammar matter.

If you have an unflattering digital footprint, what’s the first step you should take to sanitize it?

First, use these varsity Googling skills to see what the web is saying about you. Then, because a picture’s worth a thousand words, start with photos.  De-tag and delete like it’s your job (or like your job depends on it).  You can download everything from Facebook in one quick step so you have copies of your pictures.  Be sure that you also check other photo services that you use, such as whichever one is synched with twitter (like YFrog or TwitPic), instagram, old MySpace profiles, and dating websites.  Use the guidelines I describe above, or check out our PrivacyWatch service to receive notifications and next steps whenever Facebook updates its privacy settings.

Another important cleanup action is removing your personal information from background check websites.  You may have found your personal information publicly listed and up for sale on background check websites, also called data brokers or people search websites.  One example is the site Spokeo.com.  Take a second now to visit Spokeo and search for yourself; we’ll wait.  You’ll probably be shocked by what comes up (and FYI, here’s how to remove your listing).

Many employers purchase background checks on potential hires as part of the hiring process.  However, background check websites are notorious for providing inaccurate files, sometimes reporting that a potential hire has a criminal record when she truly doesn’t, or getting other factual information wrong.  In fact, the FTC recently fined Spokeo $800,000 for actively marketing its background checks to hiring managers and recruiters.Your best bet is to review the information these sites list about you and either make sure it’s correct or remove it from the site.

We’ve posted do-it-yourself removal instructions for about 20 of the biggest sites like these.  Alternatively, our premium DeleteMe service will do the removals for you. And for more on this topic, I wrote an extensive “how to delete things from the Internet” guide.

How can recent graduates balance online authenticity (i.e., seeming like a real person and not a cardboard cut-out) and the need for a professional image?

Think of the job-seeking process for the limited time period that it is:  you won’t have to be this strict forever.  It’s also unnecessary to censor so much that you aren’t yourself.  You can still speak about what’s interested and exciting and funny to you, but do so eloquently and with an eye for potentially risky content.

Use social media and commenting as a means of branding yourself and selling your best qualities.  If you’re prepared for a little self-censorship, posting under your real name can be a smart strategy.  Knowing that anything you say online may show up when someone Googles you, use your postings to your advantage.  Post intelligent, grammatically-correct, spell-checked, well-reasoned content.  Express yourself in the field in which you want to become established.  Don’t forget that good search results can be better than no search results.

If you can’t delete something bad, bury it with something good.

You can also create positive online content to bury negative online content. Certain sites consistently appear high in the search results, and by simply creating a profile on them with your name and a bit of identifying information, you can suppress negative results. Make sure that you set your privacy settings to be publicly viewed, and only post content that you’re absolutely sure you won’t regret later.  Here’s a list of sites to use:


We hope these FAQs were helpful, and good luck getting hired! Oh, and speaking of hiring, we’re looking for talented people who care about protecting online privacy to come work with us.




3 comments shared on this article:

  • NetDweller says:

    doesn’t making a social presence make one a public person? once you become a public person, then how do you get stuff removed from the websites that are not in your own control once you make yourself a public person?

    • Sarah Downey says:

      The final part of our advice on this post–create positive content to push negative content down–is meant as an option only when your information is already out there and you can’t delete it. Then you have 2 options: leave it as-is and risk it tarnishing your reputation, or create more content (in a sense, be more public) to suppress it. It wouldn’t be our first option either, which is why we suggest it last!

  • william e whitehead says:

    i like what i see and will keep up on the events in my life so as not to be put in a bad position;thank you.

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