When social media moved from a passing fad to something that was certainly here to stay, many professionals regarded it with suspicion. The idea of potential clients or employers being able to see what you did last Friday night was terrifying to most, and many individuals struggled to lock down their accounts, create fake accounts or simply forego social media entirely. But today, the entire idea of a freelancer or employee as a professional is evolving. Professionalism is less about what silly stuff you do online — which, on some level, really cannot be avoided — and more about how you are seen as a person.
At some point, most people just stopped caring about what was out there about them. Employers can — and do — Facebook stalk prospective employees, but in the grand scope of things, it stopped mattering. After all, everyone else was equally as exposed. A social media presence just became one of many factors that could either impress or alarm an employer, ranking somewhere below in-person conduct and college transcripts.
At the same time, the freelance industry was becoming inundated by startups; quirky companies that tended to embrace individuality rather than ignore it. Is it unprofessional to have a doll collecting page on your professional website? Maybe not, anymore. Especially not if you’re looking for work with a doll company. Smaller businesses wanted individuals who were passionate about their interests, even if their interests weren’t necessarily aligned with their work.
No one cares that you ate an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s last night — it’s just not going to come up during an interview process. But an interviewer does care if you got blackout drunk the prior night, lost your wallet and ended up falling into a local body of water. Ice cream isn’t going to stop you from coming to work the next day. Being at the bottom of the Mississippi River will.
Is it fair that you’re judged not only on professional merit but also on your conduct outside of the office? Perhaps not — but it’s always been true. It’s also not illegal, just to head that one off at the pass. Employers are free to discriminate regarding who they hire as long as they don’t discriminate on the basis of protected classes. An employer can absolutely refuse to hire you because you posted about cheating on your girlfriend. But they cannot refuse to hire you because you posted about being a girl with a girlfriend.
So it really isn’t rocket science. If you post about ordinary, even offbeat, things on your social media accounts, it’ll be fine; if you post about reckless or objectionable activities, it might not be. And you can’t always know what will offend someone. That’s life. We live some of our lives online and it’s unavoidable that some of it will leak through.
In the old days — you know, those heady days of 2004 — people were often advised to simply lock down their social media accounts. But that isn’t always the best solution. There is a reason why many professionals today spend a lot of money on reputation management rather than just closing down their social accounts and disappearing from the web. Simply put, it’s not possible to eradicate information from the Internet any longer.
But what you can do is overwhelm it. Closing your social media accounts just means that you have less control over your web footprint than you did before. The other information is still out there and it’s likely that you have no control over it. By creating positive information through the social media accounts that you control, you can monitor your reputation and improve upon it. Don’t ask yourself whether an employer or client will find something — they will find something. It’s all about what they find.
- Never trash previous or current clients. It’s like talking negatively about an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend; no one wants to hear that.
- In fact, don’t talk about your clients at all unless you have permission and it’s glowingly positive.
- “I’m swamped today!” is fine; “I hate my job and everyone who works here!” is alarming.
To a certain extent, having some element of personality on parade is important. It’s memorable. It’s personable. It will get you to stick in a client’s mind. It will connect you to like-minded individuals. We’re no longer beholden to strict, homogeneous markets through our geography. We have virtually limitless contacts out there. Displaying some element of personality will lead you towards a working environment that you truly enjoy and working partners that you can really click with. But obviously, that doesn’t mean you can just put everything in your life out on display. It’s a good rule of thumb to consider carefully every piece of information you ever attach to your name. It will last forever.