Take control of your online image

If you want to advance in your career, you need to make sure that both your online networking efforts and your overall Web presence are working for -- not against -- you.

The rise of online networking sites has made it easier to connect with colleagues and learn about job openings. 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.

If you want to advance in your career, you need to make sure that both your online networking efforts and your overall Web presence are working for -- not against -- you. 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. Use networking sites with care.

Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn make it easy to expand your web of business contacts, an essential element of any successful IT career. Valuable professional connections can also come from more socially oriented sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Google's Orkut.

Keep these three points in mind when networking online:

Craft your profile carefully. Pay just as much attention to the content of your profile as you would to the information in your resume. Make sure it clearly highlights your professional skills. Double-check for typos and grammatical errors.

Strive for quality, not quantity. While it may be tempting to amass as many contacts as you can, it's important to be selective about the company you keep. Guilt by association can become a factor if you're linked with people who have poor professional reputations. If you make your contact list public, potential employers may reach out to the people on it for referrals.

Ask for recommendations. Most professional networks provide space for others to comment on your work or recommend you to others. Don't be shy about asking trusted colleagues to post on your profile. These testimonials can quickly give hiring managers positive input about your work ethic and experience.

And remember, online networks aren't just job search tools; they can also help you stay up to date on industry trends and find mentors who can offer valuable career advice. Also, they can alert you to upcoming events and educational opportunities. Learn what the Web says about you.

Your ongoing "PR campaign" should also address your overall Web presence. Blogs, personal Web sites, legal documents, message board posts and newsgroup comments all may contain information that hiring managers can see.

Start by performing an Internet search for your name. (If you have a common name, add your city, profession, past employers or alma mater as search terms.) Use multiple search engines, and be sure to check alumni sites, Web sites of organizations you belong to, and blogs or personal pages of your friends, family members and co-workers.

You might be surprised by what you find -- an offensive comment, a negative blog post about a previous employer, or even unflattering pictures taken at a party. If you find such material, contact the Web site's owner or webmaster and ask to have the content removed. If your request isn't met, consider enlisting the services of a company such as ReputationDefender.

If you find that you can't have the negative content removed, make sure you're prepared to address the matter if an interviewer brings it up. In most cases, employers will understand as long as you're honest about the material in question. Put your online image to work.

The best way to limit the effect of any negative material about you is to make sure it's counterbalanced by a substantial amount of positive, professional information. Consider launching a polished Web site or blog related to your career. Feature your accomplishments, skills and certifications, and link to any professional associations you belong to. Include your site's URL in your job-application materials.

Sharing your insights in technology forums or industry message boards is another way to establish a stronger online presence. Posting well-informed comments or authoring articles in your area of expertise can also reinforce your professional reputation.

If you maintain a personal Web site or blog that has little positive relation to your work, it should be clearly separated from material about your professional life. Don't post anything you wouldn't want an employer to see. On social networking sites, consider setting your profile to "private" and blocking others from posting comments to your profile.

Controlling your online image doesn't mean blotting out any evidence of individuality or creativity. Employers know that you have a life outside of work and that a lot of online information should be taken with a grain of salt. But as more and more companies turn to the Web to learn about their potential hires, it makes sense to control what information they may find.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations worldwide and offers online job search services at www.rht.com.

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Katherine Spencer Lee

Computerworld

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