Tory Johnson: Dusting Your Digital Dirt

ByTORY JOHNSON via via logo

March 16, 2006 — -- Do you or your kids have digital dirt? If so, it might be time to start sweeping it up.

Digital dirt is the information about you -- your hobbies, your photos, your rants and raves -- that's available on the Internet through personal Web sites, profiles on popular social-networking sites, and comments on blogs. What you -- and certainly your teenagers -- might not realize is that employers are reading what's out there and in many cases these things can derail your job prospects even before you're called for an interview.

This all started with Google. The popular search engine enabled all of us to become private eyes -- we can look up anyone and anything on the Internet with the simple click of the mouse. This is a great tool for job-seekers. They can Google an interviewer to learn something about that person in hopes of using it to establish a rapport during the interview.

But there's a flip side: those same employers check out prospective hires. With basic online searches, they're finding risqué photos posted on personal Web sites and social networks. They're reading brags about excessive drinking and promiscuity, and plenty more …

With the high costs of recruiting, training and retaining top talent -- from entry level to senior executives -- employers must be cautious about who they hire. As a recruiter, if I'm considering two college seniors for the same position and I come across an online profile for one of them that brags about rowdy parties and drunken escapades, I might think twice about that person. And I will likely lean more toward the candidate who has a clean online profile -- or none at all.

Why would anyone want the contents of a silly social site to be held against him when looking for a job? The safest, smartest option is to clean up online profiles. Instead of ordering your teens to remove their profiles, which won't likely go over too well with them, you can encourage them to have fun expressing themselves -- within reason. Nobody has to lose all her personality and creativity, but you should suggest that she remove questionable material so she doesn't jeopardize potential employment opportunities.

Several college career service offices have begun aggressively warning students that recruiters monitor their online stuff. In a competitive job market, students need all the ammunition they can get. And a heads-up on this growing trend has allowed many students to start pre-emptively dusting their own dirt.

(Incidentally, many college admissions offices now review the online profiles of high school seniors when determining their eligibility for admittance. Ask your son and daughter if they would want to miss out on the college of their dreams because they're boasting about skipping class and underage drinking.)

Some teens and 20-somethings hesitate to sanitize their online profiles. Many I spoke with say, "No employer owns me 24/7 -- I'm entitled to have a social life. Just because I like to party, that doesn't mean I'm a lousy worker."

For those who refuse to budge on the racy photos or salacious profiles, my best advice is to prepare to address profile contents if asked.

An interviewer might say, "So I saw your MySpace profile and you certainly like to have fun, don't you?" Instead of saying, "Hey -- that's none of your beeswax," you'll want to take a less defensive approach. "Yes, I enjoy being with my friends. I'm also a great student and I've worked very hard to maintain a strong GPA. I believe that it's OK to relax and have fun, too. That's never affected my performance on the job, nor will it."

But again, keep in mind that you might not have the chance to defend yourself because someone might nix you from the running without even asking you to explain the online profile.

Many of the popular social-networking sites allow users to post comments about fellow members. This means that friends and strangers can comment on you, your photos and other content. To avoid having such comments from working against you, especially if they're off-color, activate the features that block such comments. You can also manually delete anything you find objectionable.

A senior executive at a top company shared with me a recent example of how such comments spiraled out of control for one new employee. She had photos of herself in a bikini during spring break posted on her online profile. What she didn't realize -- because she didn't check her profile frequently -- was that visitors to her Web page had posted the equivalent of lewd catcalls. That proved embarrassing to this young woman among her new co-workers.

She could have prevented this by implementing comment blocks or by frequenting her profile and deleting such comments.

All of us -- regardless of age or position -- are subject to online searches by current and prospective employers. I know many companies that have ruled out candidates -- and even rescinded offers -- because of what they found online. Digital dirt included misstated academic qualifications, radical political views, objectionable jokes posted on personal Web pages and even negative comments about former employers submitted to blogs.

Do some narcisurfing! It's a term that's cropping up relating to Internet searches that we conduct on ourselves. Not only can you Google yourself, but you should go to, too. Dogpile retrieves information from multiple search engines and gives different results than Google or Yahoo! does.

If you have an online profile on any of the social networks, carefully review its contents to see if there's anything that would make an employer wince. If there's information on your personal Web page that you wouldn't want your current or future boss to see, then change it. If the objectionable information about you is on another site, you can contact the webmaster about having it changed or removed. And if that's not possible, you'll have to be ready to explain it if asked.

Since there are indeed great advantages to online networks -- including promoting your professional strengths and personal interests as well as connecting with like-minded people -- consider creating a free account on a site like LinkedIn. Unlike the social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Friendster, this service, which has 5 million registered users, focuses much more on the professional than the personal.

To connect directly with Tory Johnson or for other information on career advancement, visit

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