LAST JUNE, ten students who had been accepted to Harvard University had their acceptances rescinded when screenshots of offensive posts made to a supposedly private Facebook page made their way back to the university. These students clearly forgot the two central rules of digital life—there is no such thing as online privacy, and one ill-conceived post can have lifelong repercussions.
Though extreme, their experience serves as a reminder of just how intertwined our digital personas have become with our professional lives, says Ethel Badawi, an associate professor of paralegal studies at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. As the associate director of the school’s career center, Badawi works to convince both students and faculty to craft authentic yet professional digital personas that leave good impressions on those who view them.
When Badawi makes this point with students, at first many don’t take it to heart. “They tell me, ‘We already know this.’ But when I dig deeper, I find that they aren’t thinking about this as deliberately as they should. They know that they shouldn’t be posting pictures of themselves drunk at a party, but they don’t know how to use their digital profiles to their advantage.”
Badawi would like to see all university career centers provide the following guidance to students and faculty as an integral part of their services:
Match digital with print. Too often Badawi sees “students’ résumés boast experience that their LinkedIn profiles do not. That’s a problem. Those two profiles need to be consistent.”
Be truthful. Career centers should not assume that students have internalized the importance of honesty in all the information they post. Badawi recalls when, as a member of an admissions committee, she checked one applicant’s LinkedIn profile. The applicant already had listed George Washington University as a credential before being granted admission. “I questioned that candidate’s integrity and honesty,” says Badawi. Not surprisingly, the applicant was not accepted.
Make sure online profiles are complete. This issue is especially pertinent to faculty who do not prioritize their digital presence. “Some have LinkedIn profiles with the generic ‘gray person’ photo and only ‘professor’ listed as a title,” says Badawi. If professors’ LinkedIn profiles are incomplete, or absent, “it gives the impression that they aren’t current with the times or leaders in their fields.”
Follow organizations of interest on social media. Students who follow companies’ social media accounts often are better prepared to go on job interviews—and talk knowledgably about their industries of interest—than students who do only cursory research.
Build—and tap into—online networks. People who thoughtfully build online professional networks are better positioned to reach out to their contacts for informational interviews. “They can learn to translate their online connections into in-person networks,” Badawi says, “which could eventually help them find future internship and postgraduate opportunities.”
Don’t create separate digital personas for personal and professional use, says Badawi. In fact, doing so could lead some to become careless. She emphasizes that it’s OK to accept professional friends on Facebook and personal friends on LinkedIn. “When you create a divide, you could become too lax in your personal accounts, cross the line, and end up with the screenshot scenario we saw at Harvard.”
Be authentic. Your digital profiles should always be authentic, reflecting who you are as a person, says Badawi. She tells her students that “it’s fine to know when one co-worker is going to a wedding that weekend or that another is an avid bicyclist.” She adds, “You’ll learn a lot about their personal lives, and your online persona can reflect your life as well. You want to be yourself, so you can worry less about what you want to censor. What you want to do, however, is to control that message.”
Generate great content. Badawi would like to see more career centers coach students and faculty on the best ways to create effective content for LinkedIn or personal websites. “If employers see that a student has a personal website or blog with good content about the industry, they’ll view the candidate as passionate about the industry. They’ll be more drawn to that candidate over someone else who might have the same level of experience but hasn’t taken that same level of initiative.”
Link to great content. This includes content that shows that an individual has a passion for a particular topic. Also, if students have participated in activities or won awards mentioned by the university’s website or elsewhere, they should link to that content from their profiles.
Google yourself. Badawi recommends that individuals conduct online searches for their own names every few months to see what results might come up for a potential employer. “Make sure you know what makes up your digital profile, in terms of not only what you post but what other people post about you,” she says. To be even more thorough, people can set up a Google alert under their names, which will inform them when new results appear.
If necessary, do damage control. If a negative result does come up, a first step is to ask the administrator of the site on which the content appears to take the information down. Unfortunately, Badawi says, most sites will refuse to do so; some could even demand payment. Then, she advises, a more effective strategy is to populate the internet with positive content—such as blog posts—that will push negative mentions down in the search results, where most users are unlikely to look.
Badawi sees the need for all university-based career centers to integrate these kinds of social media skills more seamlessly into their services—for example, asking students to build their LinkedIn profiles at the same time as their résumés or holding sessions that emphasize the rules of online networking at the same time they discuss face-to-face networking.
“I would like to see more career centers raise awareness of how important it is to build a digital persona,” she says, “so that people will naturally view their digital personas as part of their résumés.”