Your Reputation Online, Part 1: How Damage Is Done

Our reputation is one of our most valuable possessions, determining in large part where we work, how much money we make, whom we date or marry, and many other aspects of our lives.

The Internet, however, has made protecting, maintaining and defending our reputations difficult. Photos from college parties, blog posts by ex-boyfriends or disgruntled employees, court records: they’re all out there, free for the Googling. And unlike the days when our reputations were confined to a relatively small group of friends or acquaintances, our digital reputations spread instantly around the world.

Beyond the Resume

Perhaps one of the first times online reputation becomes an important issue for many young adults is when they apply for their first real job. At that point, recruiters and hiring managers are likely to Google them, seek them out on MySpace and Facebook, and use other electronic means to check them out before they even put a foot in the door.

If you apply for a job with the Austin, Texas-based software firm Journyx, for instance, CEO Curt Finch will most likely spend some time on the Internet finding out what he can about you, including where you went to school, what your political leanings are, who your friends are, if you’ve run any marathons, and anything else he can lay his eyes on.

“I’m curious about people and go out there and see what I can find,” Finch told TechNewsWorld. “There’s a lot that you can know about someone on the Internet that’s free.”

Mostly, he looks at his Googling as a way of getting to know someone before he interviews them, to see if they’re a fit for his company. Like other hiring managers, he looks at an applicant’s resume, but that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story about a person.

“I want to know people in a deep way before I bring them into the company, because I’m terrible at firing them,” Finch told TechNewsWorld. “A resume is an advertisement, not an affidavit.”

He gave an example of an associate who had espoused right-wing views in the past on news groups, but as he matured he didn’t want those views to be out there. He contacted Deja News, which at the time was managing the news groups, and requested that those old posts be deleted. At first, DejaNews resisted, but after attorneys got involved, the company agreed to take down the posts.

Public Records

Other types of information that might show up on Google and in other searches include past legal entanglements, divorces, DUIs, traffic tickets, or bits and pieces of the past that might have found their way into the police blotter in the local newspaper, and ultimately the Internet. Other negative information — either false or true — might be posted by people who don’t have your best interests in mind, such as ex-employees. The sources of potentially harmful information are endless, and some of them can pose a real threat, particularly for those who rely on their good reputation as part of a professional career.

“In a lot of cases there might be executives, doctors, dentists or other professionals who have information out there that could damage their careers,” Tom Drugan, CEO of the Chicago-based online reputation repair company, told TechNewsWorld. “It’s becoming a pretty big issue. More and more recruiters, employers and family members are doing background checks on people.”

Our Own Worst Enemies

Not all of the information out there, however, comes from our enemies. Some of it we are increasingly putting out there all by ourselves — on sites like personal blogs, MySpace and Facebook.

“A lot of people are putting their whole lives out there, without thinking about who’s going to see it,” Drugan told TechNewsWorld.

Increasingly, people — especially younger people — are posting their lives online, revealing personal details and information about themselves in public forums, without realizing that some of that information will stay there for years — and may haunt them as they grow up and go out into the world of work, where reputation is more a matter of making a living than it was in high school and college.

Not All Bad

Not all of the information out there, however, hurts you. In fact, it’s good to have things online and available to people that reveal something about you and your life.

Finch, for instance, told TechNewsWorld he actually likes finding something about people when he Googles them, because it shows that they have interesting, creative lives, and he’s looking for interesting, creative people to work with. So if he finds out you have a tattoo, or that you ride a motorcycle, or that you’ve worked on a political campaign, those things might actually help you. At least, they’ll give him something to go on when he interviews you, and he sees that as a plus.

“If I find out they’re passionate about something, that’s a good thing,” he told TechNewsWorld. “It means they might become passionate about my business, as well.”

It’s important, though, to make sure that what is out there is what you want to be out there. Even though the Internet seems fleeting, in fact it’s a large repository of information that lasts years, and you want that information to be as accurate and as flattering as possible.

“Everything on the Web is pretty permanent,” Daniel Dessinger, an online branding and reputation expert who owns consultancy ReputationAdvisor, told TechNewsWorld. “You have to be very cautious about how you represent yourself and your brand.”

Your Reputation Online, Part 2: Repairing the Damage

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