It's the catch-22 of the digital age: You need to be on social media to get ahead in many careers, but what you say, whom you associate with or even what you "like" on Facebook could hurt you professionally, as more employers watch workers' every move online.
No wonder, a recent study found 63 percent of social network site users are deleting "friends," and 37 percent have removed their names from photos that were tagged to identify them, according to a 2011 Pew Study.
But is that the best way to protect yourself? How exactly do you safeguard your reputation from the prying eyes of prospective and current employers?
For starters, don't rush to delete your accounts our of fear, says Joshua Waldman, the author of "Job Searching With Social Media For Dummies." "It's the counterintuitive reaction that's best. Give employers more of what they want. They want to see you out there."
Indeed, being absent from social media can hurt you, making you seem out of touch in this era of personal branding. Some companies, in fact, evaluate candidates by using online services like Klout.com that attempt to measure people's digital influence. But people who rely on privacy settings to keep those ill-considered college photos private may be making a mistake. Facebook's privacy settings are notoriously inscrutable and forever changing. "People don't realize that even if a social media network hasn't changed much, the privacy controls still may have," says Susan Strayer, the founder of the start-up branding company Exaqueo.
Although most employers won't crawl through every post and tweet, already savvy workers are taking measures -- some controversial ones -- to protect their reputations and privacy from prying eyes. Here are the five latest strategies -- along with the pros and cons.
1. Publish new and more material on your networks. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if you have an unwanted item -- like an old drinking photo from college -- that shows up high in a Google search under your name, the answer is to crowd out it out. Use services like Vimeo, YouTube and Docstoc to have fresh material connected to your name. Posting college papers is an easy tactic. And use Picasa to crowd out that unwanted photo that appears on Google images.
2. Scrub your Facebook Timeline. Forget about closing your account. Facebook is the Hotel California of social media -- you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. With nearly a billion users, your data will always be floating around, and there's still so much to gain by being on Facebook, even if you are never sure how much you are protecting yourself through the privacy controls.
The best bet, says Sree Sreenivasan, a social media/journalism professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is to go back to your start on the website and untag and delete as many comments as you see fit. "The scrubbing is not perfect," he says. "If you are going to be out there in real life and have a social and family life, what you can do is to tell your story on your terms. That's better than no story at all."
3. Join a restricted social network. If the point of social media is to connect with friends and family, there are networks like Path and Pair that place caps on the members of your circle. The thinking behind these websites is that by emphasizing intimate socializing, users are less vulnerable to snooping. Critics like Sreenivasan warn that these small sites are not "where the action is. It's better to accept this reality and embrace it as we all do."
4. Adjust your LinkedIn settings. Your boss may figure out you are searching for a new job if you are sprucing up your LinkedIn profile. It's best that the public doesn't find out about changes you are making to your profile, argues Sreenivasan. So simply go into settings, and under Privacy Controls, turn off broadcast. But don't drop out of the network as it is emerging as the top networking site for job hunters. (While you're at it, follow AOL Jobs on LinkedIn.)
5. Go undercover. Use a pseudonym or only an initial for your first name on Facebook or Twitter. Sounds drastic? Some young people who do this say that it enables them to join in the fun -- without jeopardizing them professionally. "I deal with clients," says a 29-year old New York-based global accounts manager with an independent primary research firm, who uses a Gaelic spelling of his first name on Facebook and preferred not to be named. "I was concerned about people being in my business."
The downside, of course, is that Facebook regularly looks for fake accounts and shuts them down. Some Facebook boosters argue that the new Timeline has made it easier to manage your privacy settings, but all suggest that no one should bank on any one strategy, given how often social media sites change. "Privacy needs to be checked the way your bank accounts are," says Sreenivasan. "And you also use that time to put in good news, like sprucing up new links of your latest work."
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