Every time I read an article like the recent “How social media can hurt your career” on Careerbuilder, I am grateful that we didn’t have social media back when I was in college. Young, testing the waters, and with a lot of opinions to share, I wonder if I would have unknowingly committed a faux pas in the weakness of a heated moment that would have hurt me professionally? Of course, stupid choices are not reserved for the young. Grown and experienced adults make them every day. The differences are some are more public than others and now social media is being used by employers as a microscopic tool inspecting your every utterance.

As social media becomes the latest branding strategy, networking technique, job seeking tool and recruitment vehicle, it’s also becoming the latest way for people to get job offers rescinded, reprimanded at work and even fired.

While I am all for expressing oneself and acknowledge that for many of us our online friends are as valuable as any person we know IRL (“in real life”), some of the examples I read about are really eligible for the Darwin Awards. Like the offhanded “my boss is an idiot” type remarks on Twitter and Facebook or the “I’m doing something illegal, immoral or against company policy right now at my desk” sort of fare that really makes you wonder whether the author thinks that no one is really going to read it? Unless you are working in a cave, chances are your boss, co-workers, employer, or someone is going to have something to say about your comments. Remember the 6 degrees of separation that makes social networking such a powerful tool? Well the power saw cuts both ways.

Of course what is and is not appropriate is in the eye of each individual. Yet when it comes to professional life you really do have to get that you should never put anything in print (and these days that includes tweets, status updates, etc.) that you (or your mother) would be embarrassed seeing on the front page of the newspaper (or say the front page of CNN.com). “How to Get Fired on Facebook” highlights a beautiful example of both employee and employer acting inappropriately.  It might be easy to judge and think it is a total anomaly but in “why facebook is sooo gonna get you fired” you’ve got a few real-world examples of dumb Facebook moves. Then you have 160+ comments where many of them are people throwing out crazy opinions and judgments of the people in the examples only to appear just as unsavvy as the folks in the exhibits! Does pointing your finger and inventing new off color words while spouting bigoted remarks somehow make you a more enlightened social media user than the very people you’re pointing at? (insert me scratching my head here…)

Of course awkward social media meets hiring manager moments aren’t limited to the online space.  “A hiring manager asks a woman to show him her Facebook page in an interview. What should she do?” presents a host of uncomfortable issues.  The poll results are really worth a read.  Only 11% said they would agree straight away to show their page.  Over 53% said they would ask why and then decide whether or not to show it. What you choose in the moment is one thing, but the reality is that employers are looking anyway.

Forty-five percent of employers reported in a recent CareerBuilder survey that
they use social networking sites to research job candidates, a big jump
from 22 percent last year. Another 11 percent plan to start using
social networking sites for screening. More than 2,600 hiring managers
participated in the survey, which was completed in June 2009.[1]

Ask a Manager has a good middle of the road take on complaining about work on twitter. Tweeting at work can be ok (in moderation of course, unless it is your job description) but there needs to be a level of common sense and professional judgment.  The challenge with that is, however:

As many others before me have observed, this generation is so comfortable with social media and so used to living their lives on it that they don’t always understand the need to censor themselves in public spaces where they might be observed and judged by people they want something from (like a job, professional respect, etc.).

Social media has become so ingrained in what we do that it is so easy to slip into being unconscious about it.

In the poll about the Facebook page post I reference above, the author makes a very salient point:

So think of this for example: A hiring manager cannot ask a woman
if she has children, but can see it on her Facebook and can apply a
still very common prejudice that this woman may not be entirely
dedicated to her work. While it has become harder to openly
discriminate, is it getting easier to do so tacitly?

Given that employers use their social media digging more to exclude candidates (35%) than find something stellar about them (18%), is there a bigger act of profiling churning in our midst? (Check the stats and what made employers exclude or hire candidates in this Careerbuilder article).

So, if you thrive on social media like so many of us do, what can you to do so you can use it both personally and professionally in a way that feels authentic and “in the moment” without committing professional suicide?

I believe it is possible. Sure there are always going to be managers that hate the fact that you are human, have a personality, and a life outside of work (I know I’ve worked for some), but for the most part like everything in life you need to choose how you show up and present yourself. Here are some excellent tips on what to do to keep a positive image online as well as some social media don’t s:

Some little known tools to check out your online reputation:

  • Pipl (people search tool to find those deep links about you that you won’t find on Google)
  • Personas (a fascinating tool from MIT that graphically depicts how the web sees you)

So, tap into the power of social media, just remember that you’re wielding a power tool so take the proper precautions when making decisions. Like they say when using a circular saw, measure twice, cut once.

Image credit: Web Design Ledger Icons

Paula Gregorowicz, owner of The Paula G. Company, offers life and business coaching for lesbians to help you gain the clarity, confidence, and courage you need to succeed on your own terms. Get the free eCourse “5 Steps to Move from Fear to Freedom” at her website