College students are busier than ever. Reading, writing, studying for exams, completing special projects, enjoying a social life… you name it- they’re busy doing it. These days, they must add one more thing to their list of things to do: manage their online reputations. In today’s economy, the competition is tough; one false move online and your chances of landing that dream job could be in major jeopardy.
The Internet is permanent, plain and simple. Imagine a bathroom wall full of graffiti, except this wall can be read by anyone with an Internet connection, including graduate, medical, and law school admissions counselors as well as future employers. Many college students don’t realize how much information about them can be easily found online, nor do they understand the consequences of that information being publically available.
A digital footprint can last a lifetime unless an individual diligently practices online reputation management (monitoring). In this article, we will examine what every college student and their parents need to know: the importance of managing an online reputation.
Many employers use the Internet and social media for recruiting potential job candidates. Web sites like LinkedIn, Plaxo and MyWorkster are useful sites to help job applicants network, search for jobs, and enhance their careers. It’s important to remember, however, that an individual’s social presence online can have a direct impact on how an employer thinks about a candidate.
Universities are starting to warn students about employers’ usage of online information as well. Jay Rayman, senior director of career services at Pennsylvania State University says, “People have a false sense of security about their personal information out there on the Web… they think only their friends will see it.” 
According to a 2009 study conducted by Harris Interactive, hired by Career Builder.com, 45% of the 2,667 Human Resources professionals surveyed admitted to using social networking sites to research perspective employees, and 11% planned on implementing social media screening in the very near future. 
“This type of screening is clearly on the rise,” said Megan Anderson, employment attorney at Gray Plant Mooty. “But there is very little legal guidance and people don’t know the landscape.” 
In December of 2009, Microsoft released statistics from a survey that they commissioned which drastically topped those numbers, stating that 79% of hiring managers and job recruiters in the United States reviewed online information about job applicants, while 70% of those surveyed said that they’ve rejected applicants based on their findings. 
So, what types of sites are HR professionals and job recruiters using for their research? Here’s a breakdown of what Microsoft learned:
- Search engines 78%
- Social networking sites 63%
- Photo and video sharing sites 59%
- Professional and business networking sites 57%
- Personal Web sites 48%
- Blogs 46%
- News sharing sites (e.g. Twitter) 41%
- Online forums and communities 34%
- Virtual world sites 32%
- Web sites that aggregate personal information 32%
- Online gaming sites 27%
- Professional background checking services 27%
- Classifieds and auction sites 25%
- None of these 2% 
Many employers use social networking sites (like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter) along with personal blogs to look for what they call "digital dirt."  We wondered what types of online content would actually affect an employer's decision on either hiring or firing an employee. Here's a breakdown of what Microsoft found in the same aforementioned study:
- Concerns about the candidate's lifestyle 58%
- Inappropriate comments and text written by the candidate 56%
- Unsuitable photos, videos and information 55%
- Inappropriate comments or text written by friends and relatives 43%
- Comments criticizing previous employers, coworkers or clients 40%
- Inappropriate comments or text written by colleagues or work acquaintances 40%
- Membership in certain groups and networks 35%
- Discovered that information the candidate shared was false 30%
- Poor communication skills displayed online 27%
- Concern about the candidate's financial background 16%
Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Millennial Branding LLC and founder of the Student Branding Blog, receives many internship applications from students who do not manage their online reputations. "For instance," he writes in The Wall Street Journal, "I searched for a student's name on Facebook, and a group appeared that was protesting her getting kicked out of her dormitory. I decided to hire someone else!" 
People may think that they can't be fired for things said or done online, but that's simply not true. In fact, unless there is a contract with the employer stating otherwise, they can most certainly fire an employee based on online behavior. 
The good news is that young adults between the ages of 18-29 have shown a positive trend in taking steps to protect themselves by managing their online reputations, according to a May 2010 study conducted by Pew Research Center. Specifically, 44% of that age group says they limit the amount of public information available about them, while 47% actually take the time to delete unwanted comments made by other people on their profile, and 41% have detagged themselves from photographs other people have posted of them online. 
Now, we must encourage all college students to do the same. Students enrolled in colleges and universities must be vigilant when it comes to managing their online reputations. Below is a list of 12 simple tips for college students and their families to keep in mind while they are in school.
- Privacy is key. Set all of your social networking accounts to private and maintain your privacy settings so you avoid posting too much personal information. This includes any accounts on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and any other social networking site you may use. On Facebook, don't forget to set your privacy settings to include photos and videos that others post of you to avoid being found via basic Web searches. Also, since Facebook adds new features often, it's a good idea to revisit your privacy settings periodically too. 
- Avoid oversharing. Don't say anything you wouldn't normally share with a prospective employer. Experts say it's a good idea to refrain from talking about politics or religion at work, and the same holds true for social networking sites. Any strong thoughts that lean one way over another could potentially rub somebody the wrong way and smear your online reputation. Similarly, be mindful of joining what could be considered politically incorrect groups.
- Don't look guilty by association. Even if you maintain a private online account, your friends could be saying inappropriate things about you, posting embarrassing photos, or wreaking digital havoc on your future. Also, if your friends talk about drugs and alcohol 24/7, you very easily could be linked to that type of behavior. Pay close attention to who you are friends with online and consider deleting an acquaintance that may say or do unsuitable things online.
- Stop sharing unsuitable content. Avoid posting inappropriate media to any photo or video sharing website like YouTube. Even if you use a different username on these sites, there are ways people can trace them back to your email address, so your best bet is to avoid posting things there all together. This rule of thumb goes for sharing content with your friends too because you simply can't control what they will do with your content, as was the case with a Duke University student who sent a PowerPoint presentation about her sexual encounters to a few friends before it quickly went viral. 
- Stay offline when under the influence. If you've just spent a night partying with friends, keep your computer off, or your online mistakes could come back to haunt you. Sometimes referred to as "drunk Facebooking," posting inappropriate comments or photographs while inebriated may cast a negative reflection on your online persona. Similarly, avoid posting content that proves you have broken your college's honor code policy (like a photograph of you and your roommates drinking in your dorm room which is located on a dry campus), or updating your status when you're supposed to be at class (sites like Facebook maintain digital time stamps for every member).
- Stop Complaining. Avoid speaking negatively about school, current or previous jobs, employers, classmates, or professors. Similarly, don't update your Facebook status only when you have something negative to say; find a balance so your digital persona doesn't look too angry.
- Be consistent. Make sure your job and education information on your social networking profile matches the information on your resume, or you could be caught lying.
- Separate social networking from job networking. Avoid using social networking sites like Facebook for professional networking, and build up your career contacts on other sites like LinekdIn.com.
- Consider a name change. This trend of keeping certain social networking sites like Facebook separate from job networking has become increasingly popular as students change their names on their social profiles. Some simply use their middle names as their last names. 
- Google yourself. This is probably the first thing a potential employer will do if they want to find information about you online, so why not be a step ahead of them? By doing a quick online search, you can find some (note: not all) information publically available. The faster you take care of any questionable content, the better.
- Generate positive content. Experts agree that the best way to counteract negative content is by generating positive information that will rank high on search engines like Google. Sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter all rank high in Google searches. 
- Use Google/Profiles. The search engine's latest tool allows users to create a personal profile to literally control what people see about them. Visit www.google.com/profiles for more information.
SafetyWeb is an invaluable Internet monitoring tool and Facebook monitoring application for college students and their parents to help manage online reputations. For a month, the service scours hundreds of websites daily to find any and all public information about the student, making it a convenient online reputation management solution for parents and college students. If any inappropriate photos, videos, or content postings become public – the SafetyWeb subscriber is immediately notified via a digital report and email or text message that clearly indicates the reason for concern. Additionally, SafetyWeb helps subscribers remove unwanted online content by offering step by step solutions, or working with a site's administrator directly through the 1-888-SAFE-WEB customer support line.
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