How to use social media to land — or lose — a job

William Holt
William Holt

When 21-year-old Vanessa Cagno lost out on a spring internship with the boutique marketing firm MKG, she redoubled her efforts.

“I knew that for the summer I had to do something to stand out,” she said. “I specifically got a Twitter for that. I didn’t have a smartphone, so it was a very concerted effort.”

On Twitter, Cagno started to engage with MKG on a regular basis. She followed the company’s Twitter account, checked out their links, and retweeted much of what MKG posted.

“With anything interesting, I’d make sure to give them a shout-out,” Cagno said.

Now, the senior at Rutgers University School of Business is finishing her summer as MKG’s executive intern. And MKG says her persistent Twitter stalking helped land her the job.

“I didn’t know how powerful social media could be,” Cagno said. “At MKG, they told me that they looked for my application specifically because they had seen me on Twitter.”

Online social networking comes as second nature for most students entering college this year. Members of the Born Digital generation use platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter with a facility unmatched by their parents and even their older siblings.

While this familiarity equips the class of 2017 with skills that have become increasingly central to the world of work, the ease and constancy with which young people use social platforms is also fraught with risk.

A job applicant’s use of social networking has become just as important in many employers’ evaluations as the applicant’s cover letter and interview. According to a survey conducted by online recruiting platform Jobvite, more than 90 percent of American companies planned to use some form of social media recruiting in 2012. Students need to be more conscientious than ever about the image they craft for themselves on the Internet.

“Employers are searching online for job candidates — they’re no longer just going to your university,” said Niamh O’Brien, the director of undergraduate career development at Columbia University.

An active social media presence carries numerous potential pitfalls. In a survey conducted by, 43 percent of hiring managers who regularly research candidates on sites like Facebook said they have come across subject matter that has dissuaded them from hiring a candidate — usually provocative photos or information about drinking or drug use.

Brad Schepp, a self-described “online pioneer” who with his wife, Debra, co-authored the 2012 book “How to Find a Job on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Other Social Networks,” said students should be as careful about crafting their social media profiles as they are about writing a resume.

“Think of how you present yourself in LinkedIn especially — but also on Facebook and Twitter — as the game face you’d put on at career day at your college, when you have the chance to meet face to face with employers,” he said in an email. “You wouldn’t show up with a beer in your hand.”

While Schepp said he doesn’t have any horror stories, he suggested that more and more people are taking steps to avoid the usual pratfalls.

“Where we live, there are a lot of military contractors,” said Schepp. It's not unusual for new graduates looking for jobs with those companies to start using a new Facebook name that consists of, say, their first and middle names. Would-be teachers are doing the same thing. That way all those photos, statuses, comments that appeared under their full names will not be so "findable" by employers looking to check them out.Given that social media activity has not only damaged job searches but has derailed entire careers, college counselors across the country make similar recommendations to job-seeking students.

“When employers are headhunting, they’re looking at LinkedIn, but they’re also putting your name in Google and they might be seeing your Facebook account,” O’Brien said. “We’ve seen things where people are complaining about work or class. It’s meant to be witty, but you can give the impression that you’re a whiner. You need to be thoughtful about how you’re presenting yourself.”

In early August, a top salesman at Lacoste’s flagship store in New York City was fired from the clothing company for posting a photo of his paycheck to his Instagram account. While the account was private, an HR manager reportedly told him that the post violated the company’s confidentiality agreement.

But staid, old-fashioned “professionalism” isn’t what every employer is looking for, either. The kind of posts a job seeker should make is very much contingent on the field that person hopes to enter. O’Brien suggested that there are plenty of companies out there that want to see an applicant express some individuality and vibrancy on social networking sites.

Dani Skollar, an associate producer for MKG, said creative use of social networking is essential to getting a job at the firm. She said she looks for that “special X factor” in candidates, something that will catch her eye beyond the typical list of schools and internships.

“Obviously if you have Girls Gone Wild pictures on your Facebook, you might not want to advertise that,” Skollar said. “But we want to see some personality from our applicants.”

Jessica Palermo, who has overseen MKG’s internship program for college students for a little under a year, said she almost always checks out an interesting candidate online.

“The first step is obviously looking to make sure that they have a good background,” said Palermo. “Then I’ll go to social media to see who stands out. We love it if we can find someone who has the energy and passion that fits us. You need to be doing something that’s showing you off as a person.”

What matters most is how a prospective employee is using those platforms, Palermo said.

“We’ve had candidates who haven’t engaged in the right way before,” she said. “Maybe they were too persistent, or maybe they were sending the wrong message. It’s important that they’re engaging in an actual conversation.”

Explore the entire Born Digital series from Yahoo News:

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