The Importance of your Digital Reputation

The Importance of your Digital Reputation Cyberbullying Research Center image 1

We live in a society where online searches tend to influence – if not drive – many of our decisions. If we are looking for a good doctor in the area, a potential vacation spot, or advice on what electronics to purchase this holiday season, we will perform searches using our phone, tablet, or computer. It is so easy and has become almost second-nature. That said, we don’t just look up inanimate objects and places – we look up individuals all the time.

I might look up an employer who wants to talk to me about a new position. You might look up a blind date to “scope” him or her out before you both meet up. We use the Web to gather information about people before we give them our time, energy, and efforts. If we like what we see, we open ourselves up to further communication and collaboration. If we don’t like what we see, we close ourselves off and tend to stay away from that person. We do this in any type of society and economy; if the information is accessible out there and can help us make a decision about someone, we will seek it out and use it.

Most of the time, our information searches tend not to be that in-depth unless what turns up attracts and motivates us to search for more. We spend a few minutes using a few keywords online, and if we like what we see, we may probe deeper. However, if we don’t like what we see within a very short span of time, we will be done with it, and move on. Applying this to information searches about people, it is critical that what is found about you (or me, or anyone) via a simple search engine query induces the person searching to want to learn more. If what is found is questionable, or problematic, or shady, or just plain odd – it stands out very starkly and leads to the formation of a strong and sometimes bad impression. That negative opinion or feeling, then, usually ends the potential for any type of connection.

I’m not looking for someone who might be a disaster for the public relations of my college or company or organization. I’m looking for a safe bet.

It would be great if employers and college admissions coordinators sat down at length with every single person who sent in an application, and really got to know them – their beliefs, their values, their skillset, their personality. Unfortunately, time is a limited commodity and our society (at least in America) is often inclined towards making “snap decisions” that involve a judgment of worth and potential and upside based on what is found about individuals online. This includes the way they present and represent themselves, and the way that they are presented by others. If you are applying for a position with me, I’m not looking for someone who might be a disaster for the public relations of my college or company or organization. I’m looking for a safe bet. And I’m looking to figure this out quickly. So what is best and easiest for me is to search for you online and then judge you, pigeonhole you, label you, and – if needed – move onto the next application and person. This, then, might summarily deny you the opportunity you had hoped for in an incredibly speedy and cut-and-dry fashion. It is often as simple as that. And it happens all the time.


Social media sites, blogs, and any other display of personal information shape your digital reputation, regardless of whether it is an accurate representation of who you truly are. What was once considered a new trend in employment recruiting has become a standard practice, and studies show it is a method of screening that is here to stay (Segal, 2014). Recently, Careerbuilder (2015) surveyed a representative sample of over 2,000 full-time, U.S hiring managers and human resources managers across various companies. The study revealed that 51% of companies use search engines and 52% use social media to find more information on their applicants. To be sure, employers search for information on public profiles, but they can also gain access to an applicant’s private account. I find it remarkable that of 35% of employers who admit to requesting to friend a candidate on social media, 80% were given permission by the applicant (Careerbuilder, 2015).

51% of companies use search engines and 52% use social media to find more information on their applicants.

Although these companies are not specifically searching for disqualifying information, oftentimes they discover something that causes them to not hire a candidate (Careerbuilder, 2015). In fact, 51% of hiring managers who use social media to screen applicants reported that they did not hire a candidate based on information they found online (Careerbuilder, 2015). Employers did not hire candidates when they found the following pieces of content:

Worthy of mention is that one out of three (32%) managers hired candidates based on positive information they found online (Careerbuilder, 2015). The study revealed that employers were more likely to make offers to candidates whose social media record:

Succinctly put, what is out there about you can clearly hurt or help your chances of getting hired, and so it is best to be very intentional about your digital reputation.

“Researching candidates via social media and other online sources has transformed from an emerging trend to a staple of online recruitment. In a competitive job market, recruiters are looking for all the information they can find that might help them make decisions.”

~ Rosemary Haefner, Chief HRO at CareerBuilder

College Admissions Officers

As you’ve probably heard, college administrators are also turning to social media to find more information on their applicants. A study conducted late last year identified that over one out of three (35%) college admission officers surveyed from the nation’s top regional and liberal arts universities and colleges reported accessing the social media sites of potential students, and 16% found information that harmed an applicant’s chances (Kaplan, 2014). Obviously, employers and college admissions officers may not necessarily search for every potential applicant, but these percentages seem pretty high and the odds pretty good that what is out there about you may very well affect their decision and your overall future.

digital reputation

By way of example, Justin and I regularly write letters of recommendation for students who are applying for medical school, law school, or graduate school. Professional school staff tell us that even though these students did great in their classes and received glowing letters from us, information found through a simple online search casted a significant shadow on their character and integrity. And since so many others are applying for the same opportunity, when questionable information is found it is safer and easier to just move onto the next candidate – without following up with that applicant and asking for more clarifying information.

Over one out of three (35%) college admission officers reported accessing the social media sites of potential students, and 16% found information that harmed an applicant’s chances.

Controlling Your Digital Reputation

The first step in controlling your reputation is finding out exactly what is out there and what employers and college administrators are finding when they search for you. You can begin by running your first and last name through Google, Facebook, Bing, Twitter, and other sites where searches are possible. This will mirror the first step that potential employers and admissions coordinators usually take. Next, remove any inappropriate images or communications from your social media profiles or blogs to reduce any negative impressions others may have.

Even though deleting questionable content will help, it is also important to remember that others have the ability to negatively affect your digital reputation by tagging you in their photos and posts (which then can show up in your news feed, or in search results that others perform with your name as the search term. In problematic situations, you can try to untag yourself, or contact the person who posted it and request for them to remove it. If that doesn’t work, you can report the individual and make a formal request to the social media site to remove the content. The point here is that you not only want search results to portray you in a favorable light, but you want the same from other people connected to you as friends, friends of friends, or followers. To that end, the Director of Admissions at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University states, “students on the admissions committee are more tech savvy and actually have been responsible for presenting information on candidates—acquired through Internet searches—that changed an acceptance to a rejection. As an applicant, you are responsible for the ‘public face’ that the connected world sees” (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2015).

The point here is that you not only want search results to portray you in a favorable light, but you want the same from other people connected to you as friends, friends of friends, or followers.

Personal Branding

We have alluded to the fact that social media use can be marshaled as a marketing tool to enhance your overall image and brand. Job seekers can maximize their chances by catering their profiles and communications to the specific audience from whom they hope to receive an opportunity. This method of digital reputation management simply requires you to polish your profiles to appeal to potential employers (El Ouirdi et al., 2015). It may seem like tedious work to meticulously attend to your online footprint, and that is understandable. However, it is a small investment that could possibly open up comparatively more opportunities for you – and that makes it worth it.

Consider your digital reputation from a macro-level view. There could be a dream job that you have worked extremely hard for by going through years and years of higher education, internships, trainings, accumulated debt, etc. When you finally land the attention of a hiring manager, it would be so awful to be disqualified because of one unwise post made in a moment of haste or overwrought emotion. It may not seem fair that employers are judging you based on content that may not adequately represent who you are, but the information they find about you online provides evidence that might lead to lawsuits and company liability (Segal, 2014). As my colleague Olenka (who works in Human Resources) has told us, “Google searches are an integral part of hiring process. Unlike traditional background screens, online searches add depth to an individual’s profile by revealing personality traits, and this information is not sugarcoated like references can be. It is always disheartening to rescind an offer or pass on an applicant due to content found online; however, it is often a matter of risk management.”

Should You Completely Get Off Social Media?

Interestingly, some job seekers opt to completely scrub the Internet clean of their social media profiles to prevent employers from accessing any personal information out there about them. While this may seem like a viable option, completely removing oneself from social media is actually not much better than having negative content online. These days, not playing a role in social media is “socially” not an option, since employers, schools, and other organizations are all increasingly active players in a growing social economy. In other words, those who do not participate at all are also more likely rejected. The results of a recent study on self-disclosure through social media reveal, “the cost for non-participation is social exclusion and a lack of online identity…in employment, recruiters emphasize a new transparency imperative consisting of the expectation of proactive information provision from job applicants, as lack of information would be viewed negatively,” (El Ouirdi et al., 2015). Likewise, CareerBuilder’s (2015) recent survey showed that 35% of employers are less likely to interview an applicant if they cannot find information about them online. While we do not have data on college admissions officers related to this point, it stands to reason they might act in the same way.

Completely removing oneself from social media is actually not much better than having negative content online.

Overall, the aforementioned studies conducted suggest that those who do not learn how to utilize social media strategically run a great risk of encountering obstacles when seeking employment or admission. Research has been clear that social media can serve important professional purposes, such as personal branding, self-promotion ad impression management (Chen, 2013; Jackson & Lilleker, 2011; Labrecque et al., 2011; Zhao et al., 2013), and we encourage its intentional positive use. We suggest that all youth (and young adults!) work extra hard to do great things at school and in their community (e.g., making the honor roll, volunteering, extra-curricular activities, etc.) so that when one does search for them, they find evidence of hard work, integrity, and civic-mindedness.

To be sure, this is even more important if you have made a mistake and posted something inappropriate online – your goal should be to try to bury the negative content with as much positive content as possible, and minimize the former while emphasizing the latter. We advise students to start thinking about these considerations at an early age – the earlier the better. The bottom line is that when it comes to one’s digital reputation, it is better to participate proactively rather than reactively, or not at all.


Association of American Medical Colleges. (2015). How Social Media Can Affect Your Application. Retrieved November 24, 2015, from (2015, May 14). 35 Percent of Employers Less Likely to Interview Applicants They Can’t Find Online, According to Annual CareerBuilder Social Media Recruitment Survey. Retrieved November 25, 2015 from

Chen, C-P. (2013). Exploring personal branding on YouTube. Journal of Internet Commerce, 12 (4), 332-347.

El Ouirdi, M., Segers, J., El Ouirdi, A., & Pais, I. (2015). Predictors of job seekers’ self-disclosure on social media. Computers in Human Behavior, 53, 1-12.

Jackson, N. & Lilleker, D. (2011). Microblogging, constituency service and impression management: UK MPs and the use of Twitter. The Journal of Legislative Studies, 17 (1) (2011), pp. 86–105. (2014, November 20). Kaplan Test Prep Survey: Percentage of College Admissions Officers Who Visit Applicants’ Social Networking Pages Continues to Grow — But Most Students Shrug. Retrieved November 25, 2015 from

Labrecque, L. I., Markos, E., & Milne, G. R. (2011). Online personal branding: Processes, challenges, and implications. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 25 (1), 37-50.

Segal, J. (2014, September). Social Media Use in Hiring: Assessing the Risks. Retrieved November 25, 2015 from

Zhao, X., Salehi, N., Naranjit, S., Alwaalan, S., Voida, S., & Cosley, D. (2013). The many faces of Facebook: Experiencing social media as performance, exhibition, and personal archive. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1–10).

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  1. hi. I’m a teen who has been thinking about getting an after-school job to help save for college. my mom doesn’t let me get social media. if I don’t have any for that reason, would it still possibly harm my chances at getting a job? or is mainly the larger companies that will do that.

    • Great question. If you demonstrate maturity, character, leadership, and creative thinking in your interview(s), you will get hired. Don’t think that not having social media will harm you. However, I do want you to have skills to succeed in an information based society and economy, and part of that requires some familiar with social media, apps, etc. Do you have those skills?

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