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Social Networking

Tips for tailoring MySpace and Facebook accounts during your job search

By Harriet L. Schwartz

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"When I walk into an interview, the recruiter has an advantage because he or she knows the company and has my resume-I'm in a corner. But now (with social networking), I can find out a lot about the recruiter and the company. I can put them in a corner."

-Pat Malatack, master's degree student, Human Computer Interaction, Carnegie Mellon

Career professionals-and parents-warn that using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace while searching for a job may be risky. After all, do you want your potential employer to see photos of you at last weekend's party? Will those photos diminish your prospects of landing a job? While some online content can put job searchers at a disadvantage, more people are using social networking to enhance their preparation for interviews, garner an advantage over less-wired peers, and even gain an edge with recruiters.

Malatack, who studied human computer interaction and cognitive psychology as an undergraduate, says he conducts thorough research on Google and Facebook before each interview. By searching Google, he has learned about recruiters' professional interests, including their research and published papers. Via Facebook he has researched alumni who were scheduled to interview him and learned about their personal interests, and which student organizations they belonged to in college. Gathering background information about the recruiters with whom he interviews, allows Malatack to focus his responses on topics that will interest the recruiter. In addition, he often makes stronger connections with potential employers by talking about the clubs they belonged to and even friends they have in common, information he often discovers on Facebook.

While Facebook research has helped Malatack prepare for interviews, he has also used it extensively to prepare for on-site visits. By using the alumni connections available through Facebook, he gains added insight into his potential employer and has additional contacts to ask the questions he might not want to ask a recruiter.

"I would encourage students, if you are interviewing with a company, to search for alumni who are working there. You can have conversations with alumni that you wouldn't have in an interview," Malatack says. "You can ask an alum: 'Do you like it here?' or 'Can you negotiate salary?'"

Before he began his formal job search, Malatack used Facebook for professional networking. He began using the site after a summer internship with Bose, and it is now at the center of his network. "I use it for keeping in touch with other interns and young alums, probably age 26 and younger," he says. "There are six young alums at Bose who weren't on Facebook as students, but are now on as alums in the Bose networks."

He adds, "I don't think there's a better tool out there for this kind of networking. Connections made with these people are important, and now you have a way to see where people are."

Networking Rules

When you seek and maintain professional connections via social networking sites, follow the same etiquette you would if you were networking by phone or in person. Remember that every contact is creating an impression. Online, you might tend to be less formal because you are communicating in a space that you typically share with friends. However, any time you are communicating with a potential employer, you want to maintain your professionalism. Just as you would not let your guard down if you were having dinner with a potential employer, you must maintain a positive and professional approach when conversing with networking contacts online. Ask well thought out questions, pay attention to the answers and be polite. This includes sending thank-you note anytime someone gives you advice or assistance. Contact your career consultant for additional help with networking practices and strategies.

The Mom Standard

The more controversial aspect of the interplay between social networking and job searching is the privacy debate. Some observers, including career counselors, deans and parents, worry that students put themselves at a disadvantage in the job search by making personal information available on Facebook and MySpace pages. "I have heard more and more companies are using this as a screening tool," says Chris Dito, manager of career recruiting programs at University of California, Davis.

Concern about privacy focuses on two areas: social life and identity/affiliations. Career counselors sometimes argue that job searchers would never show photos of themselves at a party in the middle of an interview, so why would they allow employers to see party photos on a Facebook page? Students often respond that most employers do not even use social networking sites and that employers already know that college students drink.

While it may be true that senior managers are less likely to be on Facebook, young recruiters may be active. In some cases, managers may ask younger employees to conduct web searches of candidates. And about the party question-do you really believe employers will not be influenced by seeing a photo of you with two drinks in your hand?

"I'm not sure how much it's held against you, but I think it's unprofessional," Malatack says. "Just like Microsoft says they don't care what you wear to an interview, but I still think it's unprofessional not to dress up. Maybe you don't need a suit, but you want to dress nicely. The company may know you are a college student and probably party, but out of respect to them, that's not what you show.

"It's like getting dressed up and brushing your hair for an interview. Do you need to? Probably not. But should you? Yes. Will you lose the job if you don't? Probably not, but it may give you an advantage over someone else."

Dito stresses that there is a tension between what is acceptable on social networking sites and what is appropriate information for job search candidates to disclose. According to Dito, a UC Davis student had a job offer rescinded because of "unflattering information" that the employer found on a MySpace page.

"Employers are as savvy online as you are-just as you can find information about them, they can find information about you," Dito says. "Often students think about their resume and GPA, but not their online behavior. They think that the site is just for them and their friends, but it isn't anymore."

Dito believes that if an employer is comparing two candidates who are closely matched in terms of GPA and experience and that one has questionable photos and text on his or her page and the other does not (or does not have an accessible page), then the second student will get the offer.

Identity: Public or Private?

The second area where social networking and privacy issues may affect your job search is in regards to identity and affiliations. Historically, job searchers have fought for increased protection from being asked questions about their identity, including religious affiliation and sexual orientation, because this information could be used by biased employers to discriminate. However, thanks to social networking sites, "employers can now find information that they are not allowed to ask you about," Dito says.

Employers can no longer legally ask these questions in most states, but some students make matters like religion, political involvement and sexual orientation public via their Web pages. Malatack adds, "Clubs you belong to, political affiliations, who you are voting for-employers now have an insight into things they don't have a legal right to ask."

Just as you consider whether or not to include religious and political affiliations and sexual orientation or transgender identity (GLBT) on your resume, you must consider whether you want this information to be available via social networking sites. There are two strategies to consider: One approach is that if you wish to only work for an employer with whom you can be openly religious, political or GLBT then making that information available on your Web page will screen out discriminating employers and make it more likely that you will land with an employer open to your identity and expression.

,P>A second approach, is to maintain your privacy and keep your options open. Investigate potential employers thoroughly and pay special attention at site visits to evaluate whether the company would be welcoming. One school of thought is that as a prospective employee, you want to present only your relevant skills and experience throughout the job search; all other information is irrelevant. Also, if you provide information about your identity and affiliations, you may be discriminated against by one person in the process even though the company overall is a good match. For example, a quietly homophobic recruiter could screen you out of the process and keep you from a job with an organization that has domestic partner benefits, a non-discrimination policy, and is otherwise a GLBT-friendly environment. You might not get the chance with that job because a single recruiter put your resume in the "no" pile after reading your Facebook page. And you may never know that your online content cost you the interview and the job.

Make the Choice

Like many other job search tools, social networking sites can be valuable in your job hunt and can also influence an employer's view of you as a candidate. Use social networking sites to acquire background information on recruiters before you interview, so you can focus your interview discussion on topics of interest to the recruiter and also find common ground, including student organizations and even friends.

In addition, social networking sites can be terrific tools for identifying alumni who work for employers that interest you. These alumni can serve as contacts to companies and help you discover whether a company negotiates salary or other such topics that you would not ask about in an interview.

At the same time, you should be strategic and intentional as you decide who will have access to your Facebook or MySpace pages. Carefully consider which information you will keep private versus what you will share publicly online with all readers, including potential employers.

Harriet L. Schwartz is a career services professional and the author of Spirituality 101: The Indispensible Guide to Finding Your Spiritual Life on Campus (Skylight Paths 2004).

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