FinWeek: Why you need to get serious about social media

For most of us, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide the perfect opportunities to show off our new girlfriend/car/job, display our undying loyalty to the Bokke, or simply to vent. When we post pictures, make derisory comments, or engage in sometimes witty, sometimes banal online chatter – we tend not to give it a second thought. After having spoken to several recruiters and companies, however, it turns out that your online profile will likely have a direct impact on your future career prospects.

“Cyber-vetting” has become common practice with headhunters and recruiters, who use social media networks not only to find you – but to get an unfiltered look into your life (both personal and professional). According to Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, MD of Jack Hammer Executive Headhunters, a person’s “network reputation” or “Net-Rep” are becoming almost as important as employment references. “It’s amazing to see how much information one can find on social networking sites – and even if people are not registered on one of the better-known sites, “googling” someone will usually provide access to some background on the individual.” Goodman-Bhyat adds that employers and recruiters frequently “cyber vet” potential candidates either to find confirmation that the job seeker is in fact an expert in their said field or other general information about them. “One of the frightening truths about the Internet is that whatever is posted, generally stays there. Whether it’s an angry ex’s blog outburst, or an innocently posted revealing photograph that may have found its way onto Flickr or Facebook, once it’s out there it’s accessible indefinitely.

“All of this may appear next to professional endorsements and expert commentary that the job seeker may have been cited for, providing a view of a candidate that is much more ‘revealing’ than one might desire in the professional context.”

She says cyber-vetting can reveal candidates’ true interests, likes and dislikes, beliefs and aspirations. It may also show the candidate-to-be the expert he has positioned himself as, or an absolute fake. Not everyone buys into this practice, however, finding it to be intrusive and rather insidious. “When interviewing, we don’t go poking around a prospective employee’s social media activity, ie photos and status updates, under any circumstances,” says Matthew Buckland, MD of digital agency Creative Spark Interactive. “In fact, I find this practice a bit unethical and unreasonable. The rule of common sense applies: We all have professional personas and private personas, and we behave in different ways when in these different contexts.”

He adds: “I fully accept that a person will use a different tone, language and conduct himself/herself differently when sitting at a boardroom table versus relaxing around the braai with some friends with a beer in hand. To try and use the latter to make a judgment on someone’s professional persona is not the correct approach.” That said, Finweek recommends erring on the side of caution, and being mindful when sharing or providing information and opinions online – because whether you like it or not – people outside of your personal circle will be using them to form opinions of you. “There is nothing stopping your current employer from conducting a little ‘cyber investigation’ of their own,” adds Goodman-Bhyat. “Take control over what you put out there!”

There is another angle, growing in importance, to how potential employers use social media. Some, particularly in the communications and media industries, analyse your activity on social media networks to gauge how influential – and effective – you are on these networks. For certain companies, your perceived “clout” on social media can make the difference between getting the job or not. Craig Rodney, MD of Cerebra Communication, explains that the agency scrutinises a potential candidate’s social media profiles – taking into account, for example, the number of Twitter followers he or she has. “It’s one of a number of ways we evaluate potential employees,” he says. “A person’s social following isn’t as important as the content they create and share. As an agency that represents many large brands in the social media space, it’s absolutely necessary that we hire people who naturally understand how to conduct themselves online. Beyond their basic conduct, you can also look out for character traits that may not suit your company culture, or ones that show the person will fit in nicely.”

Over at Creative Spark Interactive, Buckland says that a candidate’s online profile is only relevant for certain positions. “When recruiting for a role, we as a company do take their social media activity and presence into account,” he explains. “For example, for certain positions we don’t recruit anyone with less than 200 followers on Twitter. And if they are not on Twitter, then they don’t qualify for the role. But this only applies to certain positions where we expect prospective employees to be early adopters and have good knowledge and a strong presence on social media platforms.” This makes sense, because Creative Spark is a digital agency and media company that specialises in analysing social media and high tech platforms. “If the job is not in the social media or high-tech sphere, the above does not apply,” Buckland adds. Yet Rodney argues that in a world in which social media networks are becoming increasingly powerful and “changing how people view and buy products, engage with brands, etc,” being social media savvy can benefit even those whose jobs don’t obviously require it. “Brands can’t just have a Twitter account and expect things to be fine,” says Rodney. “They will have to change how they do business, and as they start on this journey, having a social media savvy workforce will help massively.” So now that we know that recruiters/potential employers are using social media networks to find and evaluate us on a number of levels, how should we approach these platforms? “Deliberately look for ways to display your talents, your causes, your intelligence online, and link to those from your social profiles,” advises Rodney. “Whether you blog your thoughts, share your photography on Flickr, or support a charity – whatever you do that you’re proud of, put it online and share it.” Keeping in mind, of course, that an employer may not be impressed with your ability to drink ten pints while inverted like a fruit bat.

Can your ‘online clout’ be quantified?

A number of digital startups have sprung up in the last few years that claim to be able to measure a person’s online social influence. Companies such as Klout, Kred and PeerIndex use complex algorithms to crunch data and gauge a person’s impact online. In certain cases, these services give people a score or ranking, which are sometimes included on CVs or looked up by employers. Yet the validity and relevance of these services (and indeed the entire concept) has been called into question from many quarters, with Klout attracting the most fierce and high-level criticisms. “My opinion of Klout’s current usefulness reflects on my opinion of its future usefulness,” said Drew Olanoff, an editor of The Next Web,  an influential online tech publication. “It’s dangerous, stupid, and rewards bad behavior – and bad decisions can be made on important things based on garbage made-up metrics. Tweeting doesn’t mean you deserve a job or not.”