Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
Potential employers may seek out your virtual friends as references.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/18/2008 11:15:06 AM ET 2008-08-18T15:15:06

Time was you could control the references a prospective employer contacted because you provided them with a well-thought out list of colleagues and former bosses you knew would provide glowing recommendations.

But with the proliferation of social networking sites loaded with lists of your contacts, and your contacts’ contacts, it’s like the Wild West of references for job seekers. You never know whom a hiring manager may end up talking to about you.

Almost every human resource professional I talk to lately admits to using these social networking sites to check out applicants, beyond just public profiles and resumes. In many cases, if an HR person shares a job seeker’s connection on a networking site, they’ll just e-mail that contact to find out the dirt on the applicant without permission from the applicant.

The thinking is, there’s nothing illegal or unethical about it because you’re flaunting your connections in the public domain.

So it’s time to think long and hard about the many friends and contacts you now have on your social networking pages. Just because someone is on your list of friends on Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean you want that individual as your reference for a job.

“The old days of a page with three references and three phone numbers on it that you controlled are over,” says Jennifer L. Berman, an HR attorney with consulting firm CBIZ in Chicago. “With these networking sites, you’ve opened up your rolodex for the whole world to see.”

Cybersleuthing
Indeed, Sergio Alvarez, executive vice president of Internet sales for Internet advertising firm Ambassador Media Group, recently used LinkedIn to get the skinny on a candidate he was considering hiring.

“This sales person was on LinkedIn and he had a contact on there from one of our competitors. Since everyone knows everyone in this industry, we contacted someone there directly,” he explains.

The job applicant had no idea Alvarez was doing the stealthy online reference check, but it worked out well for the candidate because he got a positive recommendation and the job.

If you don’t want prospective employers calling certain people on your friends’ list, you could list those individuals on a private list, which many sites now offer. But that sort of defeats the  purpose of these sites: networking.

Many of these networking sites now include functions allowing contacts to include written recommendations or you're-a-great-person labels. LinkedIn literally has an icon of a thumb pointing up to signify a friend or associate has recommended a contact.

On Jobster.com, there’s a section where you can ask your colleagues to send you a letter of recommendation.

Here’s the canned e-mail you can send out: Would you write a brief recommendation of my work that I can include on my Jobster profile?

Recommendation dos and don'ts
These are all great tools, but beware of recommendation hoarding, either getting too many or giving too many.

If you have a bunch of your non-work pals writing testimonials on Jobster, or recommending you on LinkedIn, employers may be turned off if they call your cyber connections to find out what kind of employee you may be, only to find out that you were just drinking buddies.

“This opens the door for the prospective employer to request to speak to these references, thinking that the relationship is professional in nature, to validate claims made by the candidate during the interview process about their achievements and experiences,” says Lee B. Salz, author of “Soar Despite Your Dodo Sales Manager.” “When they find that the reference is personal instead of professional, a trust issue develops between the employer and prospective employee.”

For managers who give out recommendations on social networking sites, the rules of reference non-engagement still apply. Companies have for some years put the kibosh on bosses giving out good or bad recommendations for fear of being sued by former employees, and cyberspace should be no exception, says Rich Falcone, an employment attorney with Payne & Fears in San Francisco.

“Some managers may have the feeling of freedom in cyberspace, doing things from home when they don’t feel the restraints of the office with the HR person looking over their shoulder,” he says, “but we recommend they just give out name, rank and serial number.”

You also don’t want to give a recommendation to every Tom, Dick and Harry. Recommending someone who’s incompetent could undermine your credibility in an industry or a company, says Diane Danielson, CEO of career networking site, Downtown Women’s Club and author of “The Savvy Gal's Guide to Online Networking (or What Would Jane Austen Do?)”

But you want to make sure you have some recommendations on your site. Danielson suggests having at least three recommendations but no more than 10.

Honing your references
Creating a list of recommendations on your site helps give you back a bit of control, says CBIZ’s Berman. “A lot of hiring managers are kind a lazy, so if you give them a lot of good information, odds are they will be less aggressive in finding things out on their own,” she adds.

Be sure to hone your references to people who are specific to the industry you want to enter, and place the most influential contacts at the top of your list.

That said, don’t get mired in cyberspace. Just because you have a long list of virtual recommendations doesn’t mean you should be dropping the ball on the traditional development of your three-person reference list, which is still a key hiring tool for many human resource managers.

As Chuck Pappalardo, managing director of Trilogy Search, a retained executive recruitment firm headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, says: “At this juncture, Facebook is simply not a serious site for business at the level I place folks. LinkedIn, however, is becoming increasingly more useful as a networking tool and in identifying candidates. But any posted reference can’t be taken seriously on any level.”

Since the references on these sites are often solicited, many have come to realize such references may not always be the most honest reflection of an individual.

“While some of the comments are certainly genuine with regard to service or capability, to truly check references and be satisfied that we have a 360-degree view of the candidate, we need to go beyond the obvious,” Pappalardo says. “And this means making phone calls and speaking directly to those who know the candidate, including not only relying on provided reference information.”

Ambassador's Alvarez says he uses the information he gets from social networking sites as just one piece of his hiring strategy.

“I won’t rule out someone who’s not on Facebook or LinkedIn, but having recommendations and references up on networking sites can only help you,” he says.

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