The 21st Century Reference Check

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One of the first steps a job seeker takes when preparing for an employment interview is to consult the Web for information about the prospective employer. It should come as little surprise then that companies are beginning to take a similar approach, scouring the Internet for hints about prospective employees’ professional qualifications or lack thereof.

Most technology professionals have some sort of online presence. You might have a personal Web site or blog where you post reviews about new software releases, or you might contribute to IT-related message boards. Even online content you’ve long forgotten about—an outdated version of your resume posted to a job board during the dot-com boom perhaps—has a habit of hanging around on the Web. As a result, you must be aware of your digital imprint and know how to manage your virtual presence so hiring managers feel confident about your ability to do the job.

Search for Yourself
Your first step should be to conduct an Internet search of yourself. Search Yahoo, Google or MSN using your name surrounded by quotation marks. If you have a common name, try refining the search by using your middle initial or the name of your hometown or former employer. Repeat the process with two or three other search engines because each can return slightly different results.

Minimize Negative Information
Chances are you’ll come across content related to you that you’d rather an employer not see, such as photos from your college trip to Cancun or a posting criticizing current politicians. If the information is hosted on a Web site you do not run, contact the site’s owner and ask that the reference be removed. Unfortunately, not all owners are willing or able to accommodate your request. A newspaper story in which you were quoted or a court document, for instance, might be impossible to remove from the Web. In these cases, be prepared to explain if the topic comes up during an employment interview.

Build a Positive Presence
Even if there is little or no negative information about you on the Internet, it’s wise to establish a positive online presence. If your name appears in online user group discussions or in a professional association’s newsletter, for instance, employers are more likely to see you as a leader in the IT industry. Other ways to ensure positive online references is to start a blog about a technical subject with which you are familiar, launch a professional Web site or participate in industry events such as panel discussions. For a fee, some services such as Ziggs.com will help ensure your name is displayed prominently in search engine results by buying online ad space, distributing press releases about your accomplishments or creating professional online biographies.

Creating a positive online presence is especially important because some of the results that appear in an online search about you might relate to individuals who share your name. Hiring managers might not realize the information applies to another person.

Point Them in the Right Direction
One way to ensure prospective employers find positive content about you on the Web is to lead them to sites you want them to see by including the URLs in your resume or cover letter. For example, if you are applying for a position as a .NET developer, you might direct hiring managers to an article you authored on the popular development platform for a local business journal. This can enhance your reputation as an expert in the field and convince employers that other online searches are unnecessary. Just remember that employers are virtually guaranteed to visit a site you point out to them, so be careful it contains no content that could be perceived as negative.

Keep a Close Watch
Whether or not you’re searching for a job, conduct an online search of your name every few months. It can take a while to build a positive presence—or delete the traces of a negative one—so you must continually manage your virtual profile. Some services, such as PubSub.com, allow you to track your online presence by alerting you when your name is mentioned in Internet newsgroups, blogs and other online forums.

Keep in mind that prospective employers will be surprised if you don’t have a Web presence, especially because you are in the IT field. So don’t worry about your name coming up as the result of a search engine query. Just be sure that your online reputation is a positive one.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. She can be reached at kspencerlee@certmag.com.

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