How social media can help—and hurt—your professional prospects

Social media and jobs

If you want some insight on how current or potential employers view you, try Googling yourself.

According to a Harris Interactive study, 45 percent of hiring managers used social media to screen and recruit new applicants in 2009, and 35 percent declined to hire a candidate thanks to content uncovered this way. The Wall Street Journal notes that some employers even continue to monitor your social media activity long after the hiring process, using certain posts as grounds for termination. While this trend can be troublesome for some job seekers or employees, others have turned it on its head.

"One of the best ways to gain recognition in a specific field is to use social media," says career coach Debra Yergen, author of the "Creating Job Security Resource Guide." In other words, the positive PR you generate using social networks can help you land a job just as easily as other activities (ahem) can make you lose one. The difference is in knowing how to use these tools appropriately.

Use social media to your (career) advantage

Social media may be great for keeping in touch with friends and family, but in the right hands, it is also a powerful career-building tool.

"Social media allows you to connect with people you otherwise might not be able to access," says Yergen. "Once you start building quality connections with people online, many will be willing to help you offline."

Professional networking sites like LinkedIn may help you find potential contacts easily, but Yergen notes that you still have to do the heavy lifting. "You have to invest in these relationships the same way you would in a traditional setting. Just having an account is not enough."

The career benefits of social media do not end with its networking prowess: When used properly, these sites are PR-generating machines. Instead of using Facebook to gripe about the barista who botched your latte this morning, use it to establish some positive career buzz by creating a professional group or business page.

"Most people still use Facebook primarily for largely personal use, but the emergence of subscriber options will revolutionize the site over the next two years," says Yergen. "Twitter can be (another) great way to build positive content surrounding your name, as can LinkedIn and blogs. Share industry-specific articles with your followers, and soon your new content will be associated with your name in a search."

Remember, however, that while social media can be an excellent means of positive self-promotion, it can just as easily work against you.

Protect your professional brand online

Have you heard the one about the high school teacher who lost her job for posting photos of herself drinking wine on Facebook? How about the Cisco lawyer who came under fire for anonymously commenting about a case online? Just as savvy workers can use social media to advance their careers, careless workers can use it to end them.

"People forget that posts are forever," says Yergen. "Even when they are deleted, there are ways for them to stay around and become part of your permanent digital footprint."

While crude comments or inappropriate photos are obvious termination bait, many seemingly innocent activities can work against you, too, such as giving a blow-by-blow account of your most recent job interview or repeatedly trying to connect with an uninterested coworker on Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn. Even using Foursquare to regularly check into bars can paint a negative picture.

"What you write becomes part of the public domain, even with so-called privacy controls," warns Yergen. "If there is ever a chance that what you write may find its way into the wrong hands, it may be used against you by a current or future employer." Think privacy controls or sharing lists will save you? Think again.

"Most social media sites have locks or privacy controls that can limit others from readily accessing your most personal posts, but nothing is ironclad," says Yergen. "The best control is to make sure you are only sharing work-appropriate content."

Face time trumps Facebook

Social media has certainly revolutionized the way we find or advance our careers, but should only supplement — not replace — traditional career-building. To really get ahead, experts advise that you unplug yourself now and again.

"Just because social media is the golden child of networking doesn't mean you can completely get rid of the old-fashioned, face-to-face interactions," says Yergen. "Try websites like Netparty.com or young professionals groups to find out about offline networking opportunities."

Social media can make or break your career among some employers, but in the end, it is only one piece of the jobs puzzle: sometimes a crisp suit, a hefty stack of resumes and a firm handshake will carry you much further.

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