Job Hunting? Why You Need a Strong Online Footprint

Digital Footprint

For job seekers, the persuasive cover letter and germane resume have long been the way to get a foot in the door, and more recently, HR directors will rummage through Google to make sure nothing negative turns up. But now, the extent to which individuals have established a strong and compelling online presence is having an impact on who gets the interview and job. Actively building a digital footprint that proves presence in a professional community and expertise in the field is increasingly important.

“The idea of curating your digital footprint is right on target because it gets to the heart of the matter, which is that this is a new aspect of our reputation that we have to work at,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “We can’t just assume that it’s good, and we can’t assume that we’re vigilant enough. We have to think about that carefully.”

Monica McGrath, who recently retired as Wharton’s vice dean of executive education and is renewing her consulting practice, says that while professional inquirers tend to look at professional domains like LinkedIn, no one can assume anything online. “I am surprised by the number of people who wanted to be sure I had built a presence on blogs like Huffington Post and other social media outlets. To a number of potential clients and companies it was important to see if in fact I had a voice, whether I was an expert or not, and if my approach was professional and I had something to say,” she notes.

Search firms are taking note of the evolving awareness around having a digital footprint. Samantha Wallace, market leader of the technology practice, North America, for Korn Ferry Futurestep, says the rule of “seven degrees of separation” applies: If a client believes that a candidate’s digital footprint does not show up in the “right” network, they might be excluded from consideration. Ultimately, whether a candidate gets knocked out depends on the importance of an online presence to that particular job type, and whether the search firm can provide context around why a particular candidate might be valuable even in the absence of an online presence. But it’s significant to realize that the burden of proof — why someone does not have a strong online presence — is shifting. Says Wallace: “If the client has decided that the digital space is important, and they don’t see a prospective candidate in that space, that can be detrimental.”

“The idea of curating your digital footprint is right on target because it gets to the heart of the matter, which is that this is a new aspect of our reputation that we have to work at.” –Nancy Rothbard

Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, calls this “a remarkable shift from corporate practice years ago when executives were discouraged from being involved in activities outside of their job because it was a distraction. While one’s current employer may not want you to do it, that same employer expects it in candidates.”

Getting Backstage

To neglect a healthy online presence means increasingly to take a career risk. More than a third of employers say they are less likely to interview a job candidate for whom no online information can be found, according to a 2015 CareerBuilder-Harris poll of 2,000 U.S. HR managers from various industries. More than half said they used social networking sites to research candidates — up from 39% in 2013. Checking to see whether a particular candidate had a professional online presence was a major reason for inquiry, with 56% checking for digital footprint, and 37% seeking to learn what others were saying about the candidate.

Significantly, around one third of hiring managers said they learned something online that led directly to a job offer. Curiosity has gone as far as asking job candidates for user names and passwords to social media accounts, since a deeper layer of comments and other information is available only with that kind of access. Privacy advocates have been alarmed, and government has taken action. State lawmakers began considering legislation in 2012 preventing employers from requesting access to personal Internet accounts so that individuals might get or keep a job, and nine states passed such legislation in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some states extend protection to students and prospective students, tenants and landlords, educational institutions and labor organizations. But, as Rothbard points out: “There are sneaky ways around it. If you have someone on your staff who is already [Facebook] friends with that person, then they have access, and I think that happens, too.”

All of this makes Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life seem all the more prescient. In the book, published in 1956, the sociologist used metaphors of the theater: people are actors, consciously packaging their most positive qualities for public consumption, while they are more apt to be genuine in their more backstage, or private, versions of themselves. The Internet has blurred the line between the two.

I think employers see this as a way to get to the backstage, and understand that this is where the authentic person is Twitter  — who are they when they let their impression management down?” says Rothbard. “Whether they find out, or find out that the person doesn’t actually reveal that much, that may be OK. If you don’t reveal yourself in your private space, then maybe you won’t do anything embarrassing to the company.”

Finding out information about potential employees and knowing whether it’s important are two different things. “Being successful as a manager or executive is completely different from having an online audience,” says Cappelli. “So if hiring managers are focused on the latter, they are unlikely to get someone who will be successful in the job they are trying to fill.”

“If the client has decided that the digital space is important, and they don’t see a prospective candidate in that space, that can be detrimental.” –Samantha Wallace

But, access or not, revelation or none, the elimination of the fourth wall — to continue Goffman’s theater metaphor — leaves employers and employees struggling to rewrite their roles. “I think it’s really very uncomfortable,” says Rothbard. “The question of privacy is becoming incredibly problematized in society in general, but not just as a matter of employers asking to log on and look at Facebook.” Google knows “almost everything about you,” she notes, and the amount of information that these companies have about our digital footprints is enormous. “The whole people analytics movement is geared toward getting its hands around the enormous pile of data we have about individuals, and there’s a very interesting question around privacy that has yet to be answered.”

Fashioning a Digital Footprint

To apply for this job, “attach a resume, and provide links to your social media accounts or personal blog.” So states one recent job posting for social media strategist at BuzzFeed. Evidence of digital footprint is a prerequisite for that job since developing a digital footprint is the job. But what about other jobs? Should a potential employer expect evidence of an online presence for a doctor, copywriter or chef? There is certainly leeway, but in many professions, it’s reasonable to expect a digital presence in some obvious professional online meeting places, says Jon Bischke, CEO of Entelo, the San Francisco recruiting software platform provider.

“The reality is, there’s a lot more professional data about people out there than there was five or 10 years ago,” he says. “There are new professional networks — I can go to an engineers’ page and download code, and for a designer I can go to Dribbble and assess their design skills. I think that gets you close to someone’s abilities. When you have these communities that become the community of record for a particular industry, it can raise eyebrows about why someone does not have a profile on that site. It really depends on the job. If I am hiring someone to do marketing and that person has no online presence, that’s a red flag. If it’s an engineer, I’m not going to worry that an engineer can’t do his job because he doesn’t have an online presence.”

If job hunters, especially in certain professions, are at a disadvantage when they don’t actively tend their digital footprint, these are early days in knowing exactly what it means to establish oneself online as an expert. A lot of it is subjective, says Korn Ferry’s Wallace. “I think that the concept of saying someone is an expert based on their digital footprint remains ambiguous, because typically a digital footprint is created by the individual themselves, and they are creating the story, and if they are doing it deliberately they are going to find the connections to promote themselves as an expert in the field.”

“What you want to do as much as possible is try to control the brand around your name.” –Jon Bischke

Bischke has three recommendations for job-seekers looking to establish a healthy digital footprint. “The first piece of advice is simple, but Google yourself. You want to make sure those initial links are professional and up to date. A lot of people don’t even do that,” he says. “A lot of what is going to pop up is on LinkedIn or your Facebook profile. Sometimes, what will come up are things that are inaccurate or misleading. Reputation.com will work with people in those scenarios where someone has the same name as someone convicted of a crime.”

Second, Bischke says it is important to develop professional profiles on sites and forums for your specific profession. Third, is to make sure that professional information is presented consistently across various sites, so as not to plant the idea in any prospective employer’s mind that the facts are being embellished or stretched. “What you want to do as much as possible is try to control the brand around your name,” Bischke notes.

Says Rothbard: “The power, but also the potential pitfall, of the digital online world is that we can really have our personal brand out there. This personal brand can follow us and really enhance our reputation — or detract from it if we mess it up, if we don’t manage it well.”

Part of the expectation surrounding digital presence is generational — in terms of the amount of presence, but also in the way that presence is expressed in the professional realm. Millennials project a different sense of self than their elders, and that will transform the dialogue in coming years. Millennials account for 36% of the U.S. workforce today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and will emerge as 75% of the global workforce by 2025.

What’s evolving, Wallace notes, is the “acceptable way to communicate.” Millennials have grown up in the “bring your authentic self to work” era, and don’t hesitate to use a backstage voice across all venues, including in their digital footprint. For non-millennials, “if you want to communicate in a business environment, you think about how you are framing that, and a text and a smiley face doesn’t cut it,” she says. “But for the new generation of business leaders, it does.”

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