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Be smart about your online profile

Someone is trying to sabotage your career. It's your online persona.
On The Money
This screen shot shows Lauren Miller's Facebook profile. Miller, a 36-year-old New Jersey resident who was laid off in October, keeps her online profile clean in case recruiters come across it.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Someone is trying to sabotage your career. It's your online persona.

With smaller budgets and less staff to conduct interviews, companies are increasingly using social networking sites as a way to screen prospective hires.

That's why Lauren Miller, who was laid off in October, is so vigilant over her Facebook profile. She watches for any photos friends might post showing her holding a drink. Off-color comments by anyone are immediately deleted.

"You never know how things will be perceived," said Miller, a resident of Hoboken, N.J., who worked in corporate communications.

At times, she wonders if a recruiter needs to know that she's 36, single and Jewish before she walks in the door for an interview.

Social networking sites typically let you post as much information about yourself as you like, including your education, work history and favorite music and books. You can join countless fan groups or causes. Status updates, which tell how you're feeling at any moment, offer yet more clues about you.

How much you should reveal varies depending on your situation, of course.

In some creative fields, showcasing a quirky sense of humor might score you points. Your love of marathons might even get you in the door with certain hiring managers.

The bottom line is that if you're looking to land (or keep) a job, you need treat your online profile like a resume — keep it scrubbed and up to date. A few points to remember.

Who can see my profile?
One of the first steps in staying on top of your online profile is being aware of the privacy settings.

Facebook, for instance, lets you join networks that tie users with a common bond, whether it's a company, school or where you live. You need a valid e-mail address to join the first two types of networks, but anyone can join a regional network.

The default setting on the site lets friends and everyone in your network see your profile.

If you're not comfortable with this setup, you can tweak settings to control who sees what. You can even cherry pick which friends can see select photos.

"If you have your privacy set properly, you really are controlling every aspect of how your profile is viewed," said Brandee Barker, a Facebook spokeswoman.

That said, it's always safer to assume anything you post online can become public. After all, Facebook has more than 140 million registered users, although the company doesn't disclose what percentage of that is in the U.S.

Miller has her settings so only friends can view her profile, but she maintains her page as though anyone can see it.

"I'm always cognizant of the fact that this is a public domain," she said.

Besides, if a recruiter finds your profile and sends you a friend request, would you turn it down?

How personal should I get?
There's nothing wrong with revealing your love of biking, dogs or Malcolm Gladwell books. But even if you set up a profile for personal reasons and don't intend for potential employers to see it, there's a good chance they'll search for it.

A member survey by the Society for Human Resource Management last year found 34 percent said they currently use social networking sites to recruit potential applicants, while another 19 percent said they plan to in the future.

Of those who used social networking sites to screen applicants, 47 percent said they did so before contacting the applicant for the first time.

"If a recruiter comes across your profile, there's a risk they'll judge you based on information that's not relevant to your job," said Alison Rosenblum, co-owner of Strategic Resources, a recruiting firm in Albany, N.Y. "It shouldn't be relevant, but it is."

Still, it can work in your favor to share your interests online.

Even LinkedIn, a social networking site designed specifically for professionals, includes a field where users can list interests. The idea is that such personal details can help forge bonds in the professional world. It happens all the time in face-to-face interviews; people click over a shared alma mater, hometown or hobby.

"It's a way to connect with people you want to do business with," said Kay Luo, a spokeswoman for LinkedIn, which has more than 33 million users worldwide.

For fields such as magazine writing or film production, a peak at your online profile might give them an idea of your creativity. Even if it's not an official calling card, your profile might help someone size up whether she wants to spend 40 hours a week with you.

What are the potential pitfalls?
There are a couple rules to remember if you're using a social networking site specifically to network for a job.

To start, don't bother posting the vacation, party or new baby pictures. Limit your photo to a recent head shot. It should resemble a picture you'd see on an executive bio.

Another mistake people often make on LinkedIn is only listing their current job, Luo said. Listing your all your experience gives recruiters a better sense of your abilities and widens the chances that you'll get a nibble.

There's also a reason LinkedIn doesn't have fields for religious and political views. Companies can't turn people away for political or religious reasons, but they're sensitive topics better left to your personal life. In some cases, publicly stating such views might interfere with a company's mission. The Associated Press, for instance, asks employees not to post political affiliations online to avoid the appearance of bias in news stories.

The survey by SHRM found 54 percent of members said they'd be somewhat or much less likely to hire someone because of personal values stated on an applicant's profile were contradictory with the organization's.

If you're unsure about whether to include certain details, a good barometer is to ask whether you'd list it on a resume.

"It should be the safest version of you possible, for the widest audience," Luo said.

Where do I draw the line?
You might feel more relaxed about what you post if you're employed and comfortable with your boss and co-workers. But airing personal details about yourself online can still affect your work.

Even if nobody at the office cares that you're a die-hard Democrat, a potential client might.

And unless you're encouraged to, don't mix your online profile with work. That means no logging on to your account to post updates about being bored at work or including links to your profile in company e-mails.

Also consider how loudly you should advertise where you work in your online profile if the account is primarily for friends and family. Your company might not mind workers broadcasting views online, but it also might not want to be publicly affiliated with them.