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11 Do’s and Don’ts for Your Online Professional Presence

The last several months have been a political and cultural whirlwind. The resulting hysteria on social media is like nothing we have ever seen and what is happening on Facebook and Twitter in particular is downright depressing.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a big fan of Facebook. I think it’s a horrible platform that undermines real, personal connection. Right now I have a Facebook account that I use primarily for work, but I’m considering deleting it altogether. Facebook does not encourage friendship and dialogue but rather discourages them.

If you don’t believe me, consult the facts. Recently, a report published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that social media, including Facebook, is making us feel more isolated. Another report from Bridge Ratings claims that Facebook usage is down due to the anger and vitriol on it. And yet another study from the University of Michigan found that Facebook makes us sadder and less satisfied. Think about it: if you knew nothing of Facebook and someone said, “Join this online platform, it’s known to make people feel isolated, angry, sad, and dissatisfied,” what would you do?

Okay, I’m done with my Facebook rant. But really, if those facts don’t inform how you use social media, how about this: social media, used the wrong way, can harm your career.

In a world where Facebook boasts more than 1.2 billion daily active users, people everywhere can now see what you write and say online, whether they’re a close friend, business associate, boss, or subordinate. This means that people everywhere can now make judgments about what you write and say, whether you like it or not.

Let me go ahead and challenge a thought that many of you may be having as you read this: But only 547 of my closest friends on Facebook can see what I wrote! I do have my page set to private, after all. Wrong. As my 12-year-old daughter has been taught, what you put online stays online and a privacy setting won’t keep people from sharing screen grabs (or talking about your online activity amongst themselves offline, for that matter). Don’t fool yourself into believing that you are protected by some magical cocoon that prohibits people from sharing your information on the internet.

Of course, you can exercise your First Amendment right to post whatever you’d like. This is a wonderful right. But your boss is a human and will create an impression of you. The coworker who is diametrically opposed to your political leanings will create an impression of you. That future employer who reads a hostile post or sees an inappropriate photo will create an impression of you.

You may believe that what you do off the clock shouldn’t concern any of your professional connections. But just as you have a right to post about whatever you want to, so too does every boss, coworker, and future employer have a right to pass judgment.

There are plenty of guides, laws, and regulations that are meant to protect us from unfair or premature judgment, but the fact is, people are people and they will make judgments. Right or wrong, what you say and do on the “private” (sarcasm) world wide web has an impact on how people view you, especially in the professional world.

So the question I urge you to ask yourself is, “Is it worth it?” Will your scathing open letter to that Presidential candidate change the world, or is it just a superficial way of making yourself feel better? Will the angry, vitriolic stream of consciousness-style rant against that fast food restaurant really fix the problem, or is it just a way of getting something off your chest? Will the retweet of the inappropriate joke make you more popular, or is it just a dumb thing to do?

If you think it’s worth it, go ahead. But maybe you should consider how these things can impact your career before you make those very public statements.

Maybe you shouldn’t...

1. Say something online that you wouldn’t say in person to a boss, subordinate, colleague, or future boss. For many, this might seem like a tall order -- or even downright unfair. But the fact of the matter is, you’re already saying it to them because you are saying it on the (very public) internet. In a recent survey, CareerBuilder found that 49% of hiring managers have passed up an otherwise well-qualified candidate because of what they found online. Why give them the excuse to dismiss you and your potential?

2. Post angry rants on social media. Cute babies? Yes. Angry rants? No. People don’t like to hire angry people, even if it is justified anger.

3. Use LinkedIn for ANY personal or political view. LinkedIn is a professional network, not a social one (thankfully LinkedIn users do a good job of policing the platform).

4. Publish personal opinions on a social media account that is related to your career or business. Over the last six months or so, I’ve had to mute or unfollow a handful of folks on Twitter who I connected with because of their expertise in the nonprofit field. This past election got these people so wound up that I’d have to scroll through dozens of personal or political Tweets just to get to one that had anything to do with why I followed them in the first place. Don’t dilute your professional worth with this blending of activities.

5. Trash talk your boss or place of employment. There is a precedent of people getting fired over this kind of behavior. Even if you could win a case in court, is it worth it?

6. “Friend” your boss or subordinate. There is a ton of HR best practice out there about boundaries between bosses and subordinates. These boundaries exist for a purpose and they extend to the internet.

Instead, maybe you should…

1. Create a robust LinkedIn profile and with a wide network of connections. If anyone wants to find out more information about you beyond your resume, do your best to frame it and frame it well. You have a personal brand to protect, nurture, and grow. In fact, studies show that maintaining a positive internet presence can help your career in much the same way a bad one can harm it. CareerBuilder reported that 32% of hiring managers that search for job candidates found something positive that caused them to hire the candidate.

2. Create your own website. Websites are cheap and easy to build these days. As noted earlier, hiring managers are searching for you online. Why not give them something to take a look at that you have control over? Again, protect your personal brand.

3. Regularly share substantive articles, research, quotes, and other media that demonstrate your knowledge of your position and your sector. Frankly, the main reason I tweet articles is so that I can refer to them later. But this practice also gives people some insight into my professional mindset and demonstrates what I think is important.

4. Publish posts on LinkedIn in order to articulate your thoughts about what it is you do. I’ve just started doing this and it’s a great outlet. Everyone has something to share, so use this platform to do just that.

5. Create multiple social media accounts. If you feel the need to express yourself online, create one account for your professional persona and another account for your personal life.

I’m all for vigorous debate, political or otherwise. You have a responsibility to fight for what you believe in. But instead of contributing to the hysteria of the internet, perhaps you should do something more constructive. You could register voters. Or attend a town hall with your congressman. Or volunteer for a political party. Or actually pick up a phone and talk to someone who doesn’t believe exactly what you believe.

Just remember that the professional world is a difficult one. There are people out there who are competing with you for a job—maybe your job. Don’t give future employers an excuse to disregard you and don’t give your current employer a reason to form a negative view of you.

Use the internet to advance your career, not hinder it. You can always use your living room to change people’s minds.

The Nonprofit Partnership's offices at The Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Transformational Philanthropy are open Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM - 4:30 PM.

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