The evolution of social networks is the major change in the landscape in the last few years, and they’re continuing to evolve every moment. They can dramatically improve your sources of information and your career management results. If you’re not using them and your competition is (and, I promise you, they are), you’re at a disadvantage.

Using them is fun, too. You can find people that you haven’t seen in years, from high school friends to former employers and neighbors, as well as meet new people with similar interests. You will discover ways that you can help each other that you never would have known about before. Don’t worry. They don’t have to be a huge time sink unless you allow them to be. This book isn’t a primer on how to use them; those already exist, and the tutorials on their own sites make using them fairly easy and safe.

Here, however, I will give an overview of the pros and cons of the three dominant ones, and provide ideas about how to use them to build your reputation, your knowledge, and your entrees into companies.

The Pros and Cons of Social Networks

Tidy classifications of “pros and cons” or “do’s and don’ts” don’t really work well for social networks. The answer is always, “it depends.” Considering the implications of the four areas below and how you want to be known before you plunge in can lead to improved choices, visibility, and reputation over the long term.

Companies can find you.

According to Jennifer Scott, Principal at HireEffect, 80 percent of recruiters (agency, independent, and corporate) use LinkedIn to source candidates. It’s free (let that word and its
implications sink in), and they’re tracking both passive candidates, ones that aren’t looking for jobs that they find with keyword and interest group searches, and active candidates who may be tracking them down.

Remember how you did the research in Strategy #1: Send Clear Signals, about the key words in job postings of interest to your markets or from interviews with your colleagues on “the four most important skills” they’d be looking for? You built them into your résumé so it’s skimmable and scannable, and embedded them in your Elevator Story, right?

Now it’s time to embed them in your profile on the social networking sites, your professional headline on LinkedIn, and in your choice of interest groups. Make yourself easy to find! If you make your profile settings as public as is reasonable, including putting your phone number or email on your profile so an employer can contact you by Googling you rather than needing to join LinkedIn, you’ve just helped both sides.

My client, George, had a nonsolicit, an agreement with his former employer that he couldn’t ask any of his former clients to follow him to his next firm. George put his new contact info on his LinkedIn profile that popped up on Google and, voilà, people could track him down at his new location, easily and legally.

Reputation . . . make it or break it.

Any potential employer is checking you out now on Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook, at a minimum. They can’t afford not to since they’re the easiest tools for performing due diligence. According to ExecuNet research, 44 percent of recruiters have eliminated candidates as a result of information found online. Even your current company is probably checking you out, too.

The groups you’ve selected to join on LinkedIn, the crazy pictures you’ve posted on Facebook, rants against your company or boss—this information is never private. Never. It’s fairly simple for others to work around your privacy settings and, after all, you’re posting information,
pictures, and opinions on the Internet. Did you think it was really going to be private?

“Digital dirt” is a great expression coined by Kirsten Dixson in Career Distinction: Stand Out by Building your Brand. Google yourself and see what comes up. Is there “dirt,” or entries that do not build the brand that you would like, especially on the first page of Google? What about your credit rating or information about legal or marital disputes? It’s all out there. Y

ou can set up a Google alert if you want to track when your name pops up on the Internet. Stacey Rudnick, director of MBA career services at the University of Texas at Austin, teaches a required course to first-year MBA students that includes managing your online presence. She suggests Googling yourself on a regular basis (including using Google Images for pictures), thinking of who you’re connecting with, considering how your privacy settings are structured, and, most importantly, making sure your information is consistent.

Remember Debra Cohen’s research at the Society for Human Resource Management in Strategy #3: Stop Looking for Jobs? More than 93 percent of their HR members said that they are “less likely to hire” if “information on the applicant’s profile contradicts that provided on the résumé, cover letter, or CV.” If the stories differ, is that person trustworthy?

Should you be the victim of digital dirt that isn’t accurate, either bury it, delete it, or differ. “Bury” is pushing a highly ranked Google link further back onto later pages, where it won’t get noticed as much. Burying a link can be done by your publishing material about your research, your blog, or your insights on professional trends. “

The more information you post about yourself,” says Kate Brooks from Career Services at the University of Texas at Austin, “the less likely any negative information is to show up when your name is Googled by an employer.” Unsolicited testimonials, that is, friends or clients who volunteer third-party testimonials about you that are frequently viewed so they appear on the first page or two when your name is Googled, are even better.

“Delete” you can often do with comments on your wall on Facebook, and “differ” is contacting the source of the “dirt” and enlisting help to have the tone of the comments changed or reversed. A phone call saying, “I’m really trying to set a professional tone on my wall because I’m starting a job search. Could I get your help?” is much more likely to elicit the response you need over retaliation or defensiveness.

Taking the fight outside, so to speak, out of the social network to a direct connection, shows your maturity and wisdom . . . and it gets results.

Promiscuous networking.

It’s easy to connect randomly and casually on all three sites. If you’re in any way a public figure, people who have heard you speak at a meeting or read about you may ask to link to you. Someone you meet at a party may want to friend you. You may extend the same casual invitations to others. Who wouldn’t want George Clooney as a friend? Do you really know these people though? Are they safe (will they protect your boundaries and identity), and are their connections safe as well? Do you really want all of these people to have access to the inner workings of your network or your life? If the answer is “yes,” link away, but I’m going slowly.

I personally use two filters when deciding whether to connect with someone: I need to know the person fairly well and to feel comfortable with writing a reference for the person (not that I will for everyone, but I want to be able to should they want one). Given the amount of time I’m going to spend on each site (finite), the awkwardness of “un-friending” someone if necessary, and the importance of maintaining the brand that my clients value, I want to build something that’s sustainable from the start.

After all, this should be a long-term network for each of us. A cleantech investment banker, Bic Stevens, told me that if he isn’t sure about accepting an invitation, he asks the person to call him so they can get to know each other better first, a practice that is both polite and a good idea.

Lauryn Franzoni, ExecuNet vice president and executive editor, concludes in the 2009 Executive Job Market Intelligence Report that “There’s a big difference between purposeful networking and ‘friending.’ Do you want to meet the people who can bring you closer to your career goals, or do you want to collect names? It’s about cultivating your community, nurturing your network and maintaining meaningful—and reciprocal—connections.” Quantity does not equal quality. Check back with the next edition of this book, since the effect of promiscuous networking that online social networking encourages is still being discovered. In the meantime, use your judgment before clicking “accept.”

Value share.

In social networks, as in life, it’s not just about you. Even given the 140-character constraints of Twitter, the etiquette is to help each other instead of shamelessly promoting your own goals. “Retweeting” someone’s message is a perfect example of a three-fer. Jennifer Scott of HireEffect defines “retweet” as forwarding to your followers any information you find useful that other people have tweeted you. “Not only will the person who authored the tweet be thankful, but so will those who see the message as a result of your generosity.” The original sender, the forwarding person, and all his followers benefit. If you find yourself as the originator of a tweet that is fortunate enough to be retweeted, remember to thank the forwarding person for retweeting your message.

Doing good deeds pays off at many levels on all of the social networking sites as well as in your personal network and job creation. Surprised?

Related: What Social Networks Have Most Job Search Activity? (Infographic)

Reprinted with permission from The New Job Security, Revised: The Five Best Strategies for Taking Control of Your Career. Copyright © 2010 by Pam Lassiter, Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, Berkeley, CA.

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