Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Career News recommends care with online presence

Here we go again. The Career News email newsletter yesterday discussed social networking sites and job openings – with opposite perspectives. Yes, people can learn about job openings even on sites like Myspace and Facebook as well as professional networking sites. But, the letter says, “It's also part of a much larger trend in which more information about you may be available to anyone who's interested - including hiring managers, who often perform Internet searches on job candidates.” The newsletter also advises “A good way to do so is by treating all of your online activity as part of a public relations campaign that presents a professional image for potential employers and colleagues alike.” So, they say, build your presence on the web with circumspection and keep it limited to professional matters, maybe. The web reference is here although the website rotates out its current issue periodically.

As I noted before, there is a bit of “different strokes for different folks” here. This kind of advice does sound appropriate for a younger professional, who might want to limit his or her online presence to subject matter that will assist with a chosen career. It sounds a lot less practical for a much older person, or a retired person who is experimenting with future directions. If employers do online “background checks” they may be trying to fill in the gaps not mentioned on a resume or interview.

I think this sort of problem is particularly double-edge for older IT people who spent most of their careers in “old school” mainframe shops. No one wants to “brag” online about being a COBOL professional, and many people may have long gaps, particularly after the 9/11-related downturn around 2001 (after the Y2K job boom had played out). Furthermore, many programmers work as "individual contributors" and believe that their online life should be entirely their own, and see it as separate, even if quite public now.

The Internet has probably affected how employers view careers, especially for staffing companies that send consultants to clients, whether on W-2 or corp-to-corp arrangements. They like the idea that a consultant has a “reputation” of expertise in area, whether business related (like MMIS, HIPAA, Hogan, etc) or database and technology (such as Case tools, DB2). Sometimes they scour the countryside for the one standing IT professional who can get an old IMS-DB/DC shop back on its feet.

A problem will occur, of course, because on social networking sites and “gonzo” blogs, many people mix professional life with political and social or religious views. Employers may fear that clients could be driven away when they find “controversial” material. And recently, some legal experts in the Human Resources world have said that employers should not look at these at all, at least not without a clear policy, otherwise they are implicitly asking “illegal question” and risking litigation. Of course, one can say, the applicant voluntarily put the material in a public place. Is there a “fundamental right” to Internet fame? School systems and administrators are finding that this is a particularly confounding issue for teachers, whose students (and parents) could find the material at home.

On top of this, there is every chance that an employer will pick up the wrong person, particularly when dealing with more common names. Lower quality photographs often found on the web (and taken on dance floors) can be deceptive and “identify” the wrong person.

It's strange that the major media outlets, now jumping on the "online reputation" bandwagon with their journalism, don't sound aware of the potential serious problems employers may be creating with careless online gumshoeing.

The “kids” and grandkids that we taught and raised (I speak generically for myself) created this “second life” virtual world for themselves, and only indirectly for the "rest" of us. Whatever the merits of the silly dispute between Mike Zuckerberg, Aaron Greenspan, and their former Harvard classmates, none of these “kids” had any idea of the social controversy that their inventions would create in just a couple of years (nor were their products designed with any legal “safeguards” for such misuse). None of them intended that Facebook (or Myspace, or for that matter Blogger or even Google) become a tool for “background investigations.” None of them had been on this planet long enough to imagine such a development. Back to “reputation defender”!

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