Once upon a time, youthful indiscretions committed during college years stayed locked up in the memories of school buddies or, at worst, on a police report tucked away in a small-town police station file.
Social media and the Internet have changed that. Now, a single moment of bad judgment -- an unflattering photo, an inappropriate comment or something more serious -- can live forever in friends' Facebook posts or tweets. Worse yet, the information is easily searchable by future employers. A decade later, one black mark could doom a job application in the time it takes to type "Bob Sullivan" into a search engine.
Everyone knows this, and nearly everyone ignores this. Behavioral experts like Carnegie Mellon Professor Alessandro Aquisti have conducted research showing that users continue to treat public social networks as if they are private conversations, often with disastrous results.
To be sure, companies are using Google and Facebook to check up on job applicants. A study released by Microsoft in 2010 found that 70 percent of company recruiters said they'd rejected applicants based on information they found online.
That same study showed that job applicants are incredibly naive about this: Only 15 percent said they thought information found online would impact their ability to get a job.
What students need, says privacy expert Daniel Solove of George Washington University, is a "very cynical dose of how the real world works."
"A lot of them think that employers will be fair, that they won't be hypocritical, that they will think, 'Oh, I did that when I was in school, so I won't hold this against (an applicant).’ Well that's not how it works," Solove said. "Life's not fair. Companies aren't fair. They will hold it against you."
"It" could be as innocent as a photo of a job applicant drinking at college party, or as damning as a racial epithet placed on a blog.
"It's not very time-consuming to do this. It only takes a few seconds," said Solove, who is also author of the book The Future of Reputation.
As part of NBC's Education Nation week, today we're taking a look at the importance of online reputation, and how decisions that students make about their digital lives today could have serious consequences tomorrow.
Firms are aggressively pursuing digital background strategies, evidenced by the appearance of companies like Social Intelligence, which will compile exhaustive online dossiers on job applicants for employers. The Federal Trade Commission opened -- and later closed -- an investigation into the company after its practices were reported by journalists at Gizmodo. Just this month, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Al Franken, D-Minn., sent a letter to Social Intelligence asking it to clarify its policies.
"The internet is the first, second and third stop for employers today when considering you for a job," said Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation .com. "People are not even getting to first base, not even getting to the interview because of content that's out there about them on the Web." (Click to watch Fertik in the video on this story).
The extent of the searches, and their impact on job applicants, might surprise many people. In Microsoft's survey, four out of 10 hiring managers said they'd rejected an applicant because of inappropriate comments written by colleagues, friends or relatives.
That means job applications can be doomed not just by your online actions, but by what people say about you.
Today's students might be surprised at what qualifies as a transgression, and might disqualify them for a job someday.
"Photos of drinking might be the least of their worries," Solove said. "A lot of things can show you in a bad light. Say you are a person who does a lot of gossiping -- that's something a company might not want. Or if you are critical or mocking of your teachers, making fun of them, the person doing the hiring might say, ‘Will I be next?’ and decide to move on."
In fact, four out of 10 employers in Microsoft's survey said critical comments about previous employers factored into their decision.
Even bad grammar can hurt. "Poor communication skills" were cited by one out of four hiring managers as a reason for rejection.
The rampant online background searches are troubling, Solove says, because virtually no companies have standardized their digital backgrounding process, or created any kind of guidelines.
"It's a free for all," he said. "A lot of employers haven't really thought the issue through. ...There are no guidelines on what should count positively or negatively against the applicant. They don't have a process for verifying the information they find is really about the applicant."
And they rarely give applicants a chance to respond to the negative information, he said. With many jobs openings attracting hundreds of applicants, even a slight online transgression will give an overwhelmed hiring manager an excuse to move a candidate to the rejected pile.
"Colleges create an artificial environment of fairness," Solove said. "Teachers rarely require students to answer questions on tests that they haven't been warned about, for example, and students feel free to question fairness. But that's not how it works when you're trying to get a job. Employers are busy. They have no incentive to get to the bottom of things. They are just going to move on."
Not all nations treat social media as fair game for employee background checks. In fact, Germany recently passed a law making social media research by employers illegal.
Solove has argued that companies that reject applicants because of digital research be required to inform them about the decision, akin to "adverse action" notices sent to prospective employees who are rejected because of negative information in their credit reports.
But for now, "life's not fair," should be the mantra for all college students when posting information online.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
1) Be conservative when cameras are around. No matter what anyone says about you, it's always worse when there are pictures. I have an important friend who will quietly go around a party at the end of the night and delete pictures taken of her off of everyone's cameras and cell phones. Not a bad policy.
2) Pay attention to privacy policies. You probably think your images, tweets and updates can only be viewed by a limited set of people, but study after study shows you are probably wrong. Dial up the social network privacy settings as high as they can go; periodically check for changes that might let data slip out into the public eye; and ask friends to look up your account to check for leaks right before you send out that first job application.
3) Be proactive. You can have a good online reputation, too. Post on blogs in your field; show you are a member of organizations that prove you are interesting and engaged; write thoughtful notes and comments in good English. (On a side note, don't leave comments like, "That woman you wrote about is an idiot," on blogs like this one, which happens frighteningly often. It'll cause trouble for you now and later.) In the Microsoft study, almost nine in 10 hiring pros said a positive online reputation could boost an applicant's chances.
4) Use all available tools. Use servicessuch as Google alerts or TweetBeep, to keep up with everything that is said about you online.
5) Consider creating two identities. By establishing dual online personas -- one personal, one professional -- you can keep the party pics fully separate from the professional associations. This isn't a perfect solution, as the two identities can often be blended. But it can be easier than keeping on top of privacy settings.