Clean Up Your Digital Dirt

Clean Up Your Digital Dirt

The Internet made it faster, easier, and more efficient for prospective employers and candidates to find a match. On the other hand, all it takes is a quick web search to reveal your personal information and activities, which can knock you out of the running for your dream job. These days, an increasing number of employers do that search before making a hiring decision.

When you begin looking for a new position, and periodically thereafter, it’s wise to do an Internet search on your name. Also, you can set up a Google alert for your name and you will receive an email any time something new is posted about you. You might be surprised by what you find, and you don’t want to be precluded from a job opportunity or ambushed in an interview because of any digital dirt.

Craft your online identity

These days, to have credibility as a businessperson, you must have a professional presence online. Therefore, make sure you’re listed at all of the appropriate places, such as State Bar online records, your firm’s website, directories of any professional or educational organizations to which you belong, and so forth. Set up and regularly update your profiles on online business-oriented social networking sites such as LinkedIn. Facebook is primarily a personal networking site, but is becoming more popular for business purposes. Set privacy settings as appropriate and confirm that all information about you online is accurate, up to date, complete, and professional everywhere you appear online.

Use a businesslike email address. Nothing dispels the image of a crackerjack lawyer faster than contact information which lists something like “earthtojoey@xyz.com” or “sexysuzie@xyz.com.” You can be as imaginative as you want with your personal email correspondence, but choose something benign for business, usually including some form of your name, such as “jsmith@xyz.com” or “suzanne.brown@xyz.com.”

Similarly, use a different personal email and/or a pseudonym which doesn’t identify you for any postings at sites, blogs, chat rooms, and so forth, which have nothing to do with your life as a lawyer. It’s none of your prospective employer’s business whether you collect vintage garden gnomes, belong to the Michael Jackson Fan Club, or seek a mate who shares your love of Frisbee golf. If you feel compelled to share your opinions on controversial but non-law-practice-related subjects on the worldwide web, you especially want to keep your personal and professional identities completely separate. Even though these sites might cater to your personal, rather than your professional life, everything online is fair game if a prospective employer runs an Internet search.

Sanitize your profiles

Clean up your profiles on any social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and their kin. Remove any potentially embarrassing information, comments, photos, music, or videos. Disconnect links to other sites that might show content inconsistent with your professional image. Limit access to your closest friends and family, and block comments if you fear someone else might post unflattering material on your profile. Although you cannot control what others post about you on their sites, blogs, or profiles, you can cut off links to any friends or acquaintances with questionable content on their pages. Look for potentially embarrassing photos online where you have been “tagged”, and ask the owner to “untag” you.  Remember, also, that there is no such thing as complete deletion of anything on the web; everything is archived somewhere, and savvy computer users may gain access.

Even these precautions may not be sufficient. Designating your profile, or parts thereof, as private doesn’t block access to everyone. Governmental agencies still may be able to read it in its entirety by virtue of the Patriot Act. Federal law guidelines allow potential employers to use social media sites for background checks if, for instance, the site is publicly accessible, the employer doesn’t create an alias to gain access, and any information gleaned online is not used in discriminatory ways. Although the practice of asking for a candidate’s password violates Facebook’s terms of service, that hasn’t dissuaded some potential employers requesting access to personal social media. As of late 2012, California, Maryland, and Illinois prohibit employers from requesting prospective employees’ personal passwords or usernames. Other states are likely to follow suit. Once you’re hired, however, your employer may access personal accounts on any device issued by the company.

Watch your step

If you Tweet or write a blog on any subject, law-related or otherwise, make sure it’s professional in content and tone. Check grammar and spelling; use complete sentences and proper punctuation (or Twitter protocol); use neither all caps nor all lower case letters; don’t rant; never post anything embarrassing; and NEVER badmouth your employer. Don’t use profanity, cartoons or jokes that are discriminatory or otherwise in poor taste. Be especially careful to protect privileged and confidential information, even if disseminated to a select audience. You also can block comments to gain some control over the results of a possible web search about you. At the very least, set up a mechanism to approve comments before they appear live on the Internet.

Beware, also, that actively participating on social networking sites runs the risk of a prospective employer blowing your confidential job search by asking your links, coworkers, or contacts for a premature reference check. Furthermore, if you post your résumé on job boards, and a prospective employer finds quite a few such postings in the course of a web search, you could appear desperate and indiscriminant.

Even with all of these precautions, you might find some unflattering information about yourself on the web. The key is to proactively take steps to clean up as much as possible before a prospective employer sees it. You can contact the webmaster of any site containing potentially negative information to attempt to get it removed, updated, or corrected. If necessary, you can utilize the services of an online reputation management company. At the very least, if you check up on your online presence regularly, you can prepare ready answers for any “digital dirt” a prospective employer may dig up, so you won’t get sullied or buried by it during a job search.

Valerie Fontaine

Valerie Fontaine

Valerie A. Fontaine earned her JD from UC Hastings College of Law and her BA, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, from UCLA. She was on the Editorial Board of COMM/ENT, a Journal of Communications and Entertainment Law. Valerie practiced law with a prominent Los Angeles law firm and entered the legal search profession in 1981. Valerie serves as Secretary to the Board of Directors of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC).
Valerie Fontaine

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