Applying for a new (or first) job can be time consuming. The application process, especially for graduate programs, involves several steps: customizing your application, psychometric tests, interviews, and participating in a day or more assessments online or in person.
The process may also involve an in-depth examination of your digital footprints. Behind the scenes, up to 80% of employers and recruiters use social media content as part of their assessment of candidate suitability. Being open online about health issues, addiction issues, or pregnancy can negatively affect an applicant’s chances of success when: Applyas well as a profile showing polarized views, irregular lifestyle choices, or excessive partying.
Employees may face disciplinary action or termination for their behavior on social networking sites, even when posting outside working hours. Accidental leakage of sensitive information online, such as trade secrets, intellectual property, and personal information of other employees, can security risk for organizations, and lead to loss of competitive advantage, reputation and customer trust.
A vivid illustration of such security risks comes from images posted by two naval personnel on the OnlyFans website for sharing pornography about their intimate activities on a secure UK nuclear submarine base, resulting in disciplinary action.
Our team explored how employees’ digital footprints can harm them and their employers. During extensive interviews with 26 people, we found that many struggle to fully remember and conceptualize their digital footprints, or to imagine how others might string them together and draw unforeseen conclusions.
This matters to young adults entering the workforce, who typically have extensive digital footprints across multiple platforms dating back many years. These footprints may reflect outdated versions of the person, perhaps identities and opinions that have been “tailor-tried” as they mature and figure out who they are.
Young people have told us about the peer pressure they face to comment on hot topics, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, without necessarily feeling like they want to express their views in public. Others say they regret opinions expressed about politics, race, and sexuality—opinions that seemed acceptable as a teenager, but don’t read well in the eyes of adults.
The persistence of this online content can affect young adults in ways unfamiliar with their parents, whose dark pasts are likely mapped to under-bed photo albums.
Cleaning one’s digital footprint coherently is a task that people often find overwhelming. She difficulty remembering what they have posted on multiple channels for many years and avoid cleaning up, reassuring themselves that they are boring and not worthy of the interest of others.
Some take general actions, such as deleting some or all of their social media accounts. Yet removal is a luxury. Some of the young adults we interviewed felt compelled to be visible online through social media accounts while looking for work — especially for white-collar jobs — so that potential employers could check them out.
Online visibility provides legitimacy. It gives an identity to the world – who we are, who we interact with, our activities and opinions. Granted, that identity may be a sanitized version of the real person, carefully constructed with an online audience in mind, but so is a resume.
There can be ongoing tensions for job seekers between feeling the need to be visible online while protecting their own safety. One of our interviewees, whose family had applied for asylum in the UK, emphasized how asylum seekers could feel torn:
I’ve met . . . people who were. . . run for their lives. Any information they put digitally online would be instantly searched, so they stayed away from any kind of digital, social media. . . . But then they are also confronted with the contrast that they have to release something in order to make progress. . . to show yourself, or else people won’t think you’re legit.
Likewise, survivors of domestic violence may want to keep themselves inconspicuous to avoid being found by their abusers.
Tidying up is a painful but necessary aspect of entering the world of work. Google itself. Ask a friend of a friend to look you up online and see what they find. If possible, remove content that puts you in a bad light. If you are mentioned in content posted by others, ask them to remove it. Untag yourself.
If all else fails, disconnect from online connections that have tagged you at your worst so the content isn’t associated with you.
If there’s too much content that could harm your job prospects, tighten up your privacy settings so potential employers can’t see it. If the membership of a specific social media site is linked to a past that you no longer correspond with, such as an OnlyFans account, then untie yourself and delete your account for good measure.
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series on issues affecting our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as adults. The articles in this series examine the questions and provide answers as we navigate this turbulent period of our lives.