Feature of the Week

May 4, 2014 8:25 pm

Students find their virtual reputations precede them

Illustration of business spies©James Ferguson

A decade or so ago social media was in its infancy. Candidates applying to high-ranking business schools would carefully gather the information required by the school in the knowledge that the admissions department might check references and academic qualifications but that inquiries would not go much further.

Later, as students neared graduation, a tidy CV and references would be sent to potential employers – again controlling what the employers would see. Those must seem like innocent times.

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“Almost everyone who wants to know about you, and this includes college admission tutors as well as potential employers, will look at your social activity,” says Lior Tal, co-founder of Repnup an online service to help users tidy their social profiles.

As prospective employers punch your name into Google search they will be able to discover a wealth of information; for example court judgments that mention your name or the companies you have worked for, and references in online forums and blogs. Some employers could be using software such as Google’s Image Match, to search for you on the internet using your digital photo. Any search will also find individuals with the same name or who closely resemble you, something that could also hinder an application.

“We have people reading the applications, and they look them [applicants] up [online] and there are some strange things that come up,” says Lisa Piguet, associate director of MBA admissions at IMD, who has expertise as a careers consultant.

Some revelations are beyond an applicant’s control. For instance, Ms Piguet says that an internet search on an applicant’s background showed that a company they had previously worked for had been involved in fraud. Further checks ascertained that the applicant could not have been directly involved, but a place was offered only after that had been confirmed. Ms Piguet says IMD is unusual in that it retains an outside company to perform background checks on all applicants to whom it wishes to offer a place, but it might be wise to enter any application process with the idea that those sorts of checks could be performed.

For most applicants, either for a job or a business school place, their main problem will be their social profiles.

“There’s a lot of university graduates who have a long social footprint,” says Christina Hamilton, head of UK marketing at reputation.com, a company offering a range of services that address privacy, online profiles and salvaging damaged online reputations for individuals and companies.

Mr Tal says a typical person in their early 20s will have about 5,000 Facebook statuses. Research shows that about 70 per cent of Facebook users leave their profiles open to the public.

This is not to say that students are completely unaware of the pitfalls. “More and more people are becoming aware of how they are perceived online,” says Ms Hamilton.

“I’ve seen that MBAs are much more savvy than they were six years ago,” agrees Ms Piguet.

However, individuals can miss important details when it comes to reviewing their personal profiles. Photographs, for example, can let people down, even if they have been chosen by the individual for their LinkedIn profile – a professional social network that all business school students are encouraged to maintain.

“I think they [pictures] tell a lot,” says Ms Piguet. In a recent LinkedIn profile, she says the individual had chosen a photo of herself on a boat. She appeared to be on vacation rather than a serious jobseeker.

Connie English, director of alumni career services at the Darden School of Business agrees. “Profile picture can be inappropriate,” she says, adding that she had recently worked with a successful man whose photo on his social profile showed him with bloodshot eyes. “It was obvious he had been drinking,” she says.

Faced with thousands of Facebook statuses and possibly mature presences on Twitter, Instagram or other social networks, it might be tempting to delete your profile before submitting an application. But experts point out that this is not fail safe. Traces will be left behind says Ms Hamilton. These might be instances where other people make references to statuses, posts, or “tweets” you have made. Or you may have been “tagged” in a Facebook photograph uploaded by someone else.

Erasing your presence on social media can also appear strange. “We do a workshop called ‘Professional image in the age of social media’,” says Ms English. “A lot of people were saying ‘I’m not doing it [social networking], I don’t believe in it’, but that absence from social media says something about you too.”

“Sometimes organisations want a good deal of social media competence,” agrees Mike Nicholson, director of the centre for global learning at Durham University Business School, which has now runs a course called Social Media Strategies. Durham launched the programme after discovering that many business school students are asked to develop a social media strategy in the companies they join after graduation. The assignments are completed on blogs and class discussions take place on Twitter. “If you don’t have much of a social media presence you might be perceived as not being very good at networking,” Dr Nicholson adds.

“The whole point around social media is all about building a successful brand,” says David Morris, head of corporate sectors in the career services team at London Business School. LinkedIn, he adds, is becoming increasingly important as a recruitment venue.

“I think every professional needs to be on LinkedIn,” agrees Ms English. She also suggests that before making an application you ask someone to search for you on the internet who then gives honest feedback on what they find.

 

Ways to clean up your digital footprint

 

Several companies have launched in recent years that can provide free or low-cost help to applicants who need to check or clean their online brand.

Repnup focuses only on social profiles. It is already up and running on Facebook and will shortly add Twitter and Instagram. It offers users a one-off scan of their social profiles for free and plans to charge $9.95 if users wish to purchase the report. The company is patenting software that not only scans for posts of an inappropriate sexual nature, but also for any references to drugs, alcohol and violence in text as well as in photographs. Users will be sent a report with links highlighting potentially problematic posts, which they can then take down. However, it does not address what other people are saying about you.

For a more comprehensive service, reputation.com might be the answer. This company launched in 2006 and provides a range of services aimed at companies, wealthy individuals and students. For a sliding fee, which starts at $9.95 a month and ends at thousands of dollars a year, users can purchase a report on everything that has been said about them, engage the company either to take down inappropriate posts or ask third parties to delete them, and even build a positive image that pushes negative news further down Google search.

Brandyourself.com also offers a search engine optimisation approach. Users can sign up for Brandyourself services and receive a free guide on how to boost their own positive profiles. Alternatively users can pay for a concierge service, so the company does it for you, for fees that start at $299 a month.

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