In the May 17, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks whether what we post on the Net can hurt us.

Now that I’m job hunting, I’m taking stock of things I’ve posted around the Net. I wonder if my online writing could hurt my chances of getting hired. I suppose a diligent background check could turn up things I’ve written that could be misread. I also see that certain companies have policies prohibiting their employees from publishing blogs or anything that might reflect poorly on the company. Are we supposed to keep our mouths shut and stop posting online because “Big Brother” might find it? Is it best to use a screen name and to avoid identifying myself?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

…the Net is a great way to hang out with people — there are some great discussion forums to participate in and blogs where you can comment. Done right, it’s a good way to make valuable new contacts, and a way to build a reputation.

I believe the main reason a person’s postings on the Net can create problems is anonymity. If we think we’re anonymous, we’re more likely to post stupidly. How can you seem stupid if you’re anonymous? It’s not difficult, for someone whose job is to investigate you, to map your silly screen name to a similar e-mail address, Twitter account or Facebook page, and through your online haunts, and to track it back to you.

So, don’t be anonymous. Use your real name, or don’t post. Clearly identifying ourselves helps keep us honest — and undoubtedly helps decrease the litter of Internet leavings (and the load of nonsense) on the Net.

I try to practice this not only when I post, but when I judge a posting. If a real name doesn’t accompany a posting, I give it less credence. I want to know who is behind the words. I want to know they’ve put some skin in their statements…

(…Sorry, but you must subscribe to the newsletter to get the entire “Answer” and commentary in the newsletter… Don’t wait til next week… Sign up now… it’s free!)

…In a time when intellectual property (IP) is the real asset, why do people (and companies) want to suppress the identities of those who create that IP?

There will always be dopes who make themselves (and their employers) look bad online. But the potential to build a good, solid reputation across the Net starts with accountability. Anyone who doesn’t believe they leave a persistent image of themselves online has a lot to learn — the hard way. Those who “get it” can prosper because the Net is a phenomenal amplifier of good IP.

I’ll put this more clearly: A consistent, responsible body of useful postings on the Net identified by your real name can gain you the kind of notice that leads to good job opportunities. (Please see this old gem of an article by Susan Raskin: Mining Candidates: How top recruiters really use the Net to fill jobs.)…

…Your privacy is of course valuable. That may be why you decide to use a pseudonym. But, if you have something worth saying, and if you are thoughtful and circumspect, then I suggest you put your real name on your writings. It’s the rare individual who can be proud of the trail he or she leaves. While that trail might attract nuisances, it also attracts opportunities.

You drop stuff all over the Net every time you post a comment on a blog or social networking site. Are your leavings making you look bad? Or, do you drop gold nuggets that suggest you’re a golden goose? (Okay, enough of that metaphor.) How do you account for yourself online?


  1. Nick,
    While I use my real name on this site and some others including the New York Times, there are other times when it is necessary for personal safety to use a screen name. For instance, posting on the online version the local paper can invite vandalizm or worse if you give your unvarnished opinion on the behavior of members of certain socioeconomic strata. However, I do take precautions against anyone trying to track the source by using an alias that is in turn connected to a portable email account under another name. Sort of a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

  2. I tell people to think before they post. If you don’t want to see it in the NY Times 10 years down the road, just don’t say it, especially online. On the other hand, if you are job searching, Google yourself so you can see what comes up, because it is highly unlikely you are the only person with your name!

  3. I think you need to be very careful what you put out there. It’s amazing to me what people will post on facebook, or blogs that could really hurt them in the future. That said, I think it’s important to have to freedom to blog and talk about what you want. I just think if you are going to blog about your divorce and b*itch of an x-wife, the wild trip to Vegas with strippers, etc … you might want to think about doing it without your name attached. One of the first things recruiters and potential employers do now is google you, and in depth. I used to be the head of research for an executive search firm and they would ask me to try my hardest to find dirt on candidates..they didn’t want any surprises. Just be careful WHAT you put out there.

  4. I manage an international soccer site and have a comments policy. I reluctantly allow anonymous comments but do not encourage them.

    I also submit work to other online media sites where contributors are strongly encouraged to respond to reader’s comments. Like Nick, I place more credence in those who identify themselves. If you want privacy and still desire to participate in a forum discussion, you can always send an email directly to the writer, editor or publisher. Thoughtful insights, positive or negative, are usually welcome and provide the writer and/or editor with valuable feedback.

  5. Or, maybe, “if you are going to blog about your divorce and b*itch of an x-wife, the wild trip to Vegas with strippers, etc “… you just SHOULDN’T.

    It’s called good judgment and discretion.

  6. Oh my!!! This is America in the Millenium? Right, so we have several issues here.

    1. Privacy
    2. Anonymity
    3. Identity
    4. Job Marketability
    5. Hiring practices, somewhat shady (if not illegal)

    First, @JZ “if you give your unvarnished opinion on the behavior of members of certain socioeconomic strata” I not sure that there is a way to put a positive spin on that statement …

    With that out of the way, let’s review the basics.
    This is the Internet and yes, whatever you share with the Internet does have a life of its own: I’m not willing to negatively frame my Internet materials as “leavings” but suffice to say, things hang around for awhile.

    From my personal experience, I was confused that a coworker practically accused me of trying to mask my identity by using “VK” instead of “Victoria” on LinkedIn. She approached me about it with the tone of a veiled accusation. [Of course, it is my initials and I do have a good Latin-4 combo that makes my name rather long …] What did I tell her when she asked? Answer: Nothing. I feel quite competent to make a few decisions for myself at 35+.

    ScreenNames, yes I use a screenname … especially because there are many scenarios wherein it does not matter who is commenting: which movies do I like, which books do I read, do I drink coffe and where do I buy it? Who cares who it is, really? Typically, a “screen name” reflects the context of the environment where it is used: “starbucksagain” goes to get coffee daily and runs into a few others in the group have a little community on Twitter or some other social network. It’s about fun.

    However, it isn’t really the same as anonymity because I used the same screen name(s) all the time: evrybody (who needs to know) knows that it is a post from me.

    An *ALIAS* on the other hand, might not identify me or be known to others and we all have the right to used them if we choose to do so. In fact, if you’re in witness protection or have a crazy inlaw, minister, employer, ex-whatever: the police would suggest that you use and alias.

    Should employers attempt to track their candidates and/or employees down on the Internet? In terms of privacy or discriminatory practices, my answer is NO (without out question) for ANY sort of social materials that do not pertain to the person’s job. However, IF the person is identifying the company or revealing trade secrets: yes, it is corporate business in terms of risk exposure.

    The other comment about using your real name, but ‘watching what your write because someone important might read it and it might cost you a job or damage your reputation in you offline community, I would think: hey, you need new friends or a different job because if you can’t be/say/write/think in your real voice — what’s the point?

  7. In general, I think Nick’s advice to post under full name is good. It forces you to think twice about what you write. I use my full name some places, and nicknames others, but I always write as if I used my full name. However, there are some sites where a full name is unfeasible – this site is one of them, because lots of job hunters would like to discuss here without revealing to their employer’s internal police that they are job hunting. Therefore, I hide my surname here. Other issues may be people who reveal e.g. criminal issues witin companies (Whistle blowers).

  8. Actually, I forget to punch one final thought (during my rant). Whether I use my real name or not, I’m authentic in what I say. I think that there are a lot of people “running for office” on LinkedIn and Facebook … use social media to springboard into jobs or sales by posing as the “competent happy camper” It causes “churn” in the job market because these people usually lack integrity and often rofes skills that they do not actually have.
    No realtionship, social or otherwise, that is entered into with false pretenses will last.

  9. Ever since the time about 10 years ago when I Googled myself and realized that every post I had made (under my real name) to an industry site popped up, I am very careful about how I use my real name and screen names.

    I always post as if I am using my real name, and – when appropriate – have happily identified myself to the site/blog owner.

    BUT there are things I would happily discuss among colleagues that I would not discuss with clients. A bit of anonymity is a good thing.

    And I like keeping my hobbies and interests somehwat private. Not that they’re racy – they aren’t – but I hate the very false sense of “insight” that some people feel that have into a person from Google-searching. It’s creepy!

    (I say somewhat because I’m sure I couldn’t hide from Navy SEALS or the CIA, but that isn’t my goal. I’m just trying to keep a relatively low profile generally online.)

  10. I have been cautious about revealing my real name, largely, I think, because I had the fear of death put into me by people who bang on about the dangers of stalking, identity theft, hostility towards women in some subject areas and the general nastiness of the internet.

    I’ve come to the conclusion now that a lot of that is tinfoil-hat talk, and I’ve been thinking for a while about dropping the “anonymity”. I have always posted as though I wasn’t anonymous, so I have no worries about something coming back to bite me. However, like Ellen, I’ve wondered whether it was wise to have my hobbies, which are a little unusual (not shady or racy, BTW), immediately linkable to me, as people can draw some peculiar conclusions at times.

    Let’s suppose that I drop my anonymity on an area of interest, and that does prompt some negative reactions – how would I deal with that?

  11. I’m glad I was grown before the start of the “internet age.” I do not feel the need to reveal much about myself online and I am amazed by people who post inappropriate photos, accounts of illegal or rowdy behavior, and even their day-to-day routines.

    Nick replies to anonymity-advocating Candace that, ” ‘if you are going to blog about your divorce and b*itch of an x-wife, the wild trip to Vegas with strippers, etc ‘… you just SHOULDN’T.” Yes, you just shouldn’t. But let me go one step further and suggest that ideally one not say or do things that they do not want the world to know about— period. I know we all fall short of the mark at times, but these things have a way of catching up to folks. They especially are immortalized when accounted for online, and often catch up to people even when “hidden” and not talked about online, anonymously or otherwise. Everything comes out in the wash, so let us daily consider how we are living. The intrusions into our daily lives go a lot deeper and wider than Google searches, and yes, that is concerning in many ways, but it is also our current reality.

  12. I understand the need people have to avoid problems with “the authorities” (e.g., your employer) when they post. The dialogue on this topic has been rich, with some complex reasoning presented, and I get it. I haven’t commented much on this thread because I can’t argue with some of the explanations for anonymous posting.

    But Erika brings a sharp focus on a larger issue: Anonymity breeds irresponsibility. No, I don’t think you’re irresponsible if you post without identifying yourself fully. But if we step back and look at the big picture of our society, anonymity is an incredible eliminator of inhibitions. People will say and do things they’d never want to be held accountable for. They will violate their ethical standards, sometimes just because it’s fun. The consequences of an entire society leaning in this direction can be destructive.

    So I’m not saying, Don’t post anonymously. Like Erika, I urge you to “daily consider how we are living.”

    Penelope Trunk recently posted a BNET column about why women should lie more often. It ties into this discussion. I think Trunk is a self-absorbed rake in the literary sense of the word, and she profits from it. Her columns are an example of irresponsible commentary coupled with disclosure of identity. You don’t need to be anonymous to destroy your reputation. She really doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her and she repeatedly excuses herself by blaming Asperger’s Syndrome. I commented on her column with just a link to one of my own:

  13. I had always been relieved that there was no “permanent record” for things to go on, as our teachers used to claim.

    Then I realized that the Internet IS the permanent record. And the implications of that are profound.

    After seeing how flaming and trolls have destroyed otherwise nice on-lne experiences, I am totally against those practices and absolutely welcome the new “Report This Post” otions. And anonymity can breed trouble. But it also allows people to participate and say things in an open forum, and that can be good too.

  14. ‘women should lie more often’ … that is horrible advice, for our society.

    People should be as transparent as their sensibilities allow. I tend to be a private person.

    @Erika, I agree with you on the too much information, especially about the daily routine. One instance that baffles me is airline trip information. Sure, comment about a trip AFTER it has occured and you are at home safe, but to announce where you’re going … not me.

    I tend also to make my statements with directness (I’m an introvert, if I have something to say or write it is presented as is. I agree with Nick/Others that people need to think before they share information or post whatever.

    My point is more to consistency: I’m the same person and same voice all of the time, on or offline (work or social). If I write something on the Net it is something that everyone who knows me can recognize as being a part of my personality.

    At ATH, I try to share things that are useful and upbeat because recruiters and job-seekers need positive feedback/input on the situations that they are in or their profession.

    Food for thought, as a introvert, sometimes my words look like (and are received as) ranting, but pushing ideas out for a person who internalizes almost everything is really hard.

    One thought on sharing information about family dynamics (divorce, etc.), I think that families should be careful with that, especially if there are young minds who might not understand the complexities of adult relationships.

    Great topic Nick, thanks again …

  15. I think that people should be careful about sharing family or other relationship dynamics, because the other people involved might not want all those details to be made public.

    I know I wouldn’t if I were involved in something like that. We don’t always get the choice not to be involved, either.

  16. When hiring people I always google their name, and if they have taken extreme political positions, whether I agree with them or not, it’s a no. It’s rare to find people who use their real name on blogs, etc, but it happens.

  17. @GS Is there any concern that what you are doing is illegal, perhaps puts your company at risk for a lawsuit? How do you reconcile discriminatory practices?

  18. I think online profile of applicants should not be connected to your job search. Only the information from the background check should be the basis of their verification.

  19. Here is why anonymity is a GOOD idea: If it was banned online, kinda like how it is, for the most part, on Facebook, then all an employer needs to do is look you up and they can not hire you based on religious views, political views, etc. Illegal if they said it during an interview, but how you KNOW if they decided not to hire because “Big Brother Employer” was stalking you?

    I believe the damage of trolls, etc, is a necessary evil and the price of not living in a corporate (or worse) police state.