What's the first thing you do when you're introduced to a new person? If you're like most people, you check them out online -- their Facebook page, Twitter feed, LinkedIn profile and so on. Potential employers do the same when they're screening candidates, so it's important to make sure your online presence offers an accurate picture of your whole self before you're asked to an in-person interview.
"In this day and age, how you conduct yourself personally does reflect on how you are viewed professionally because of the advent of social media. The two inform each other much more so than they have in the past. In the spirit of full transparency, it's critically important that you represent yourself accurately online," says Jason Hanold, CEO and managing partner at Hanold Associates, an executive search firm.
For hiring managers and recruiters, it comes down to trust, especially when they must make quick decisions based on initial impressions, says Hanold. The more information a recruiter has about you, the more quickly they develop an impression and make a snap decision, sometimes in seconds, on whether or not to invite you for a phone call or an interview.
"You can't trust who you don't know; the more information you have, the better decision you feel you're making. As a job seeker, your online impression is the first and sometimes only view recruiters and hiring managers see of you, besides your formal resume, and that is what they're basing the next step on," Hanold says.
[ Related Story: CareerLabs offers deeper dives on potential employers ]
Who are you?
It's one reason Hanold spends time flying to meet candidates in person. Sometimes their online persona isn't an accurate match to how they present themselves in person. Sometimes, he says, all he has to go on when meeting them -- often within a tight timeframe, in an airport or at a hotel -- is their LinkedIn profile picture.
"I'll do day trips to meet potential candidates, and sometimes it's like, 'Uh, how old is this photo? This can't be you -- it doesn't look right!' And that skews my initial perception toward the negative. It's hard to negate a positive first impression and it's almost impossible to rebuild from a negative first impression," he says.
Style and substance
That doesn't mean you should pretend to be someone you're not -- that could be equally as detrimental if you land a position for which your "real" self isn't a good fit, culturally, says Stu Coleman, senior managing director, accounting and finance contract staffing at WinterWyman.
"You want the interview to be about substance, not style, but for some, your style is part of your substance. So, sure, put on a nice suit, cover those tattoos and take out the piercings and go have a great interview. The problem is, for some, it's akin to having a serious conversation wearing a toga. They had a name for it back when I was in high school; it was called being 'a poser.' How can your prospective new employer get to know you when you are pretending to be someone else?" Coleman says.
That's a rhetorical question -- you can't, Coleman adds. But what you can do is make sure your online presence reflects the most professional, accurate and up-to-date version of you.
Many organizations are taking cultural fit into consideration when hiring candidates, and that can work in your favor, especially as the virtual and real, the personal and professional worlds blend together, Coleman states. "Everyone today has two lives -- the virtual and the in-person -- and they're colliding. You have to think about how both are going to affect your job search, and don't let your pride get in the way. Sure, you can say, 'I am who I am,' but how much of that will be seen as, 'What I am is a great employee? '" he says.
[ Related Story: How to use culture interviews to build a better team ]
Changing your profile picture, first and foremost, can help polish your image, says Hanold. Try and tailor your choice to reflect the kind of career and culture you aspire to join, whether that's as a C-level executive or a freewheeling software developer. Or, you can take a neutral-looking selfie or get a professional headshot taken, he notes.
And while you want to make sure there's nothing inappropriate showing up publicly on your social media profiles, don't delete them altogether or make them completely bland and innocuous -- they're a valuable way for potential employers to get to know you before they meet you in person.
"For me, Facebook and Twitter, even LinkedIn can be supplemental to a candidate's professional history and their resume. I love to see people's interests, their influencers, which companies and causes they follow and support. I want to make sure that a candidate's likes, dislikes, values and mission are matching up with the employer's specific culture," Hanold says.
Most hiring managers and recruiters aren't going to spend a significant amount of time digging around to find dirt on you, Coleman adds, but make sure the most recent posts and activity aren't raising any red flags.
"If we do a quick search on your Twitter handle and we see you're trading barbs back and forth, escalating arguments with other users, starting flame wars -- we're going to assume that you don't tend to acknowledge others' points of view without attacking. That's not a good thing. If you were a 'maybe' for a position, and we see something like that, well, you're out. Nothing ever goes away on the Internet -- remember that!" he says.
Heard the one about glass houses and stones?
Also remember that, sometimes, no matter what you do, you'll manage to rub someone the wrong way, however innocent or innocuous your interests, says Coleman. In one example, he said a recruiter complained about how poorly many candidates presented themselves online but, when asked to bring up his own, it showed his preference for ugly sweaters and posing for pictures with his multitude of cats.
"How awkward and embarrassing is that? Everyone has their own 'bad,' everyone has their own thing that's 'weird.' What's normal to you could be a major turn-off for others, and that's okay! Just be aware of it," Coleman laughs.
The moral of the story is to tweak your online profile so it reflects the best, most professional version of you, and let your experience, talent and personality win the day. You won't be a perfect fit for everyone, and that's okay -- you want to make sure you're fitting into a culture and a professional environment that's best for you.
This story, "How to successfully blend your online and offline personas" was originally published by CIO.