It’s no secret that social media websites are playing an ever-growing role in the employment process for both employers and job seekers, and for good reason: Online networking offers the fastest, most convenient way ever devised for companies to post openings and would-be candidates to find them. There’s just one complicating factor: Social network use has cast a distinct haze over the once-clear boundary between the workplace and personal turf, and that fact can pose challenges, whether you’re actively looking for a job or simply want to keep your career flowing smoothly upward.
 
For job seekers, one of the stickiest wickets is the varied ways employers use social media in their recruitment efforts. Some rely primarily (or even exclusively) on LinkedIn, while others, such as Discovery Networks International, cast a far broader net. Eric Hawkins, SVP of HR, shared this insight: “Discovery is in the process of launching dedicated Facebook pages for its hiring and flexible staffing groups, and already has a page in place for its internship program. These pages are meant not only to let people know about available positions, but to make the company more personal and accessible to potential hires and to assist job-seekers with resources that will make the process more effective on both ends. We also post jobs regularly on our @DiscoveryJobs Twitter account. And when we’re screening applicants, we regularly turn to social media platforms—primarily Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn—to get as complete a sense of the candidates as possible.”
 
Just as job seekers search out job opportunities online, a growing number of industry recruiters are cruising networking sites to identify prospective candidates. Torrance Smith, HR business partner for A&E Television Networks (AETN), said, “We’ve seen significant value in resources such as LinkedIn. It’s helped us engage passive job seekers who would have gone unnoticed through traditional recruiting methods.”
 
 
Network with Caution
Of course, with so many industry managers perusing so many social media venues, there is a good chance that sooner or later your current or prospective employers will stumble upon something you’ve posted on a Facebook page, LinkedIn profile or Twitter stream. Depending on the content, the verbiage or pictures can give your career a boost or get you in hot water.
 
To help clear the haze for employees, a number of companies have established formal policies spelling out what is and is not acceptable practice in terms of social media usage, during both working and non-working hours. AETN recently went a step farther by holding a corporate-wide social media training session. According to Rosalind Clay Carter, SVP of HR for AETN, “Employees responded in a very positive way. Many of them even asked for follow-up information to share with their children.”
 
Regardless of whether or not your employer has a social media policy in place, when you’re using any networking site it pays to keep one fact in mind: Once you post something on the ’net, you have no control over where it may end up or who might see it. Furthermore, unlike the informal verbal comments they resemble, tweets, posts—and even conventional email messages—carry the weight of written documents with one additional sobering characteristic: With a couple taps of a finger, an electronic communication can be copied verbatim by any recipient and sent flying to multiple parties around the world.
 
This combination of infinite reach and archival permanence makes social media a double-edged sword. It can be an invaluable tool on your road to the top or, in extreme cases, it can send your career crashing down in flames. The first key to avoiding major trouble should be obvious, but it can be easy to overlook in the fast, free and easy world of tweets and blogs: Do not, under any circumstances, divulge confidential or sensitive information about your employer, no matter how minor the subject may seem, and never use defamatory or threatening language of any kind. In many companies, either of those missteps could be grounds for termination.
 
Also, resist the temptation to criticize or complain about past or current bosses, coworkers, colleagues in other companies, or annoying issues at work. No matter how irritated you may be—even if your gripes are legitimate—you have nothing to gain and a whole lot to lose by airing them to the world at large. Your best bet is to remember that old-time rule of civility: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
 
In general, Discovery’s Hawkins has a few words of advice for job seekers, “Put yourself in the shoes of a hiring or HR manager, and take a critical look at all of your public accounts. Are there posts, photos, or any other content that is unprofessional or would make a potential employer think twice about hiring you? Also, be careful what you post on other sites, including blogs, to ensure that your statements are consistent with the values and goals of the organizations you are interested in.”
 
Making Social Networking Work for You
When it comes to leveraging social media to boost your career, the process begins with one simple step. In the words of David Laughlin, Director of HR for Starz Entertainment, “Get connected, and keep your profile current. Our recruiters are looking at passive candidates on LinkedIn every day.”
 
Beyond simply connecting, Discovery’s Hawkins advises job seekers, both active and passive, to develop blogs on topics that are relevant to their industries and/or positions. A blog, he said, “is an excellent supplement to a resume, and gives a much richer sense of a candidate’s knowledge, perspective and writing style. Commenting on corporate blog posts, interacting with organizations on Twitter and attending online industry events are other good ways to establish connection with potential employers.”
 
Across the board, HR pros agree that social profiles make the most positive impression on recruiters when they convey a candidate’s passion for his or her work and interests, leadership in the field and positive interactions with other members of their professional and social communities. In short, although no online connection can replace a personal interview, the ideal profile comes as close as possible to replicating what AETN’s Smith calls “the excitement, drive, enthusiasm and interaction” of a face-to-face meeting.
 
So whether you’re happily employed or seeking new career opportunities, by all means leverage social networks as a connectivity tool. Just take care to avoid the common mistakes that might harm your career.
 

(Pamela Williams, CAE, is Executive Director of the Cable and Telecommunications Human Resources Association (CTHRA).)

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