You may have heard the story of Justine Sacco, a former PR executive at an American company. Just before boarding a plane from New York to South Africa in 2013, Justine tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Within minutes, her remarks sparked off a vicious storm on Twitter, and the tweet was soon trending worldwide. As Justine cruised in the air on the long flight, she was oblivious of the uproar her tweet had caused. The post had been retweeted and shared thousands of time, and many had been deeply offended by her carelessness and insensitivity.
When she finally settled in Cape Town ready to begin her vacation, Justine logged on to Twitter and was shocked to find tens of e-mails and text messages from her family and friends asking her to delete the post. Later, her boss wrote to her, informing her that she had been fired.
Yet at the time, Justine had only 170 followers on Twitter, and was a minnow by Twitter standards.
Another story is told of 19-year-old Netherlands goalkeeper Kjell Scherpen who was forced to apologise for some abrasive comments he made years ago about his current club Ajax Amsterdam.
In 2011, when he was 11-years-old, Scherpen said that Ajax had been ‘‘lucky’’ to win the league. At that time, he never imagined that he would end up playing for the Dutch giants in future. The hiring team caught wind of this and before he could sign his contract, the club’s CEO Edwin Van Der SAR made him write hundreds of lines, before a sizeable team of top club officials, in praise of Ajax.
The embarrassed teenager spent several minutes scribbling frantically on a stack of papers, as his new employers closely watched him.
The Internet is awash with similar stories of young people who mindlessly posted things online, and were later haunted by their posts.
How much of your personal information is on the Internet? How could this information impact your job search?
This week, we engage four young people who tell us what they have learnt from their use of social media and the internet, how those lessons have changed the way they now conduct themselves online, and what they think of employers who scrutinise candidates’ social media profiles before hiring them.
JOHN KIONGO, 22
STUDENT, TECHNICAL UNIVERSITY OF KENYA
I use the Internet a lot. In the past, I had an online job where I provided content on Fiverr and Upwork. Nowadays, look out for job and internship opportunities online. My biggest tool to learn new skills, for entertainment and for social interactions is the Internet. I spend most of my time on Twitter.
There isn’t a big difference between my real life and how I portray myself online. In fact, my Internet profiles accurately reflect who I really am.
I am an introvert, but online I have a more outgoing personality. On that space I freely express my views on current affairs, politics, sports, technology and environmental issues.
People may not agree wholly with some of the opinions I have expressed on the intranet, but I doubt I have crossed anyone’s line. I recently heard that in order to get a visa to the United States, one will be required to provide all their social media accounts for scrutiny.
That scared me a little because in my previous tweets, I have criticised US President Donald Trump. If my activity were to be unearthed, then I could be barred from visiting the country.
I think employers should not judge people by what they say online. If someone posted an opinion about a certain brand five years ago, for instance, it shouldn’t be used against them. Five years is a long time. It is possible that the individual has since formed a different, more informed opinion about the brand.
If I ever found myself being interviewed for a job in an organisation I had criticised before online, I would stand my ground. After all our opinions about people and organisations are shaped by what we know about them at that time. An organisation can’t afford to lose talent simply because someone criticised them online, possibly from a point ignorance.
Every day I am conscious of what other people might say about me online. We are beyond the era when social media was used merely for informal interactions. Our social media accounts have become a rich source of information about us, and more and more employers are digging for information from them. This is an indication that tactics are changing. So, I don’t take lightly what my online friends say about me.
An organisation should only be tough on individuals who post extremist views on religion or ethnicity online. This would help the organisation to clarify its position on these issues.
To me, online branding is a powerful tool to promote one’s presence on the web. I have posted my works online and even shared my contact details just in case someone might want to reach out with a job offer.
JUNE MWOLOLO, 21
STUDENT, STRATHMORE UNIVERSITY
I use social media to interact with my friends and family. I am mostly active on WhatsApp, although I try to limit the amount of time I spend on social media.
Someone once asked me why I followed so many people. I hadn’t thought about it critically, but the person explained to me that by associating with a specific personality or brand, I endorse their ideals and activities. He explained that this could affect my reputation. From that time, I have become more mindful of what I do online, and who I follow. Since then, I have consistently searched my name online to see who it’s being associated with.
Also, I think what people say and do online is sometimes influenced by popular trends.
If I were an employer, I would want to know what online jobs my candidates have done. Through the freedom of speech that is available on the web, people post things that reveal a lot about them. (more clarity please?) Sometimes people misuse this freedom.
I would, therefore, track potential employees’ online activity as a way of understanding them and their ideals. The success of a business or brand is ultimately anchored on the personnel behind it. To have a glimpse of who I am bringing on board would help me keep troublemakers at bay. If someone comes off as a narcissist, that’s a red flag. I wouldn’t add them to my team. They could disrupt the rest of the workforce.
It bothers me that my social media activity could ruin my professional and social chances. If some undesirable information about me were to come up on the Internet, I wouldn’t know how to control its spread.
However, the temptation to get carried away and speak my mind, especially while using a pseudonym, is very real. To avoid this, I try to spend less time on social media. There are days when I deliberately avoid visiting social media sites.
In a way, I think what people say on social media mirrors their personalities. Online platforms offer users a sense of freedom, and allows them to say just about anything. I have seen people develop double personalities, where they are quite shy in real life but very vocal online. There is this misconception that what people say online doesn’t matter much.
I limit my online interaction to exchanging pleasantries with friends and colleagues and keeping tabs on new developments specific areas of interest.
SHARON OCHOLA, 23
STUDENT, MULTIMEDIA UNIVERSITY
I am very active on social media. I have accounts on Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook. I constantly check my phone to keep tabs on what’s happening.
So far, I haven’t had any regrettable experience, and I doubt there is any online altercation that could jeopardise my job prospects.
What people say about me online is their business. I focus on having a strong positive character, which is more important to me.
Over the years I have become very sensitive. Before writing a post or comment on social media, I double check the facts and even assess its potential for backlash.
I once commented on a friend’s post on Facebook only for other people to react with hostility. While it was a harmless and an honest remark, I had to pull it down.
From terrible and almost unforgettable experiences that some professionals have had online, I have gathered several important lessons. To keep out of harm’s way, I am cautious of everything I post and the comments I make, the sites I visit and the people I engage with online.
Whenever I am provoked or bullied online, I stand up to the bullies. Experience has taught me that when you sit back, cyber bullies are encouraged to humiliate you further. However, I fight back with strength and decorum.
FRANCIS KINUTHIA, 26
I stopped being active on social media, specifically WhatsApp. I belong to different WhatsApp groups, but only to get information and entertainment.
I don’t have digital dirt besides two photos I posted on Facebook six years ago involving my friends and I on the swimming pool. Sometimes back, I had trouble trying to clear my name on a WhatsApp group where members thought I was into sex toys. It took a lot to convince otherwise.
I wouldn’t pull anything down from my online profile. Every post I’ve made was for a reason. Other than sharing photos of my boyfriend, I keep everything else private.
I wouldn’t be entirely comfortable if a potential employer tracked my online activity. Social life and professional life shouldn’t mix. Not that I have anything to hide, but I’d prefer if what I do in my private life remained private.
I have never lost an opportunity because of a post or comment I made on social media. I only engage in conversations I am passionate about and avoid controversy and confrontations at all costs. I am, however, very candid. I speak out my mind on any issue. This sometimes leads to conflict, but I try to argue with objectivity.
How much dirt can be dug from your online profile?
As a matter of principle, May Nyaga, a human resource manager at Copy Cat Group, looks up a potential candidate’s name online long before the interview.
‘‘That way, I am able to acquaint myself with their profile and therefore understand them better. The fastest way to know about someone’s social habits, views and character is to look through their social media timelines,’’ she says.
What is “digital dirt”?
It is any unflattering content about you that is available on social sites, including unappealing photos, rude comments or silly posts which may have been posted by your friends or by strangers. The easiest way to answer this question is to ask yourself: How clean or dirty is my online identity?
Is having a clean digital footprint important?
As a professional, it’s paramount to have a clean digital trail. Digital dirt could make you lose a good opportunity. Only a few firms are using the conventional recruitment methods that requires you to submit your resume. Most companies nowadays have automated recruitment processes which incorporate the use of Artificial Intelligence in the hiring process. This way, a candidate’s online activity and presence is tracked easily.
Do recruiters really do online searches on candidates? How often does this happen?
They do. This is the new norm in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business and professional environment. At the touch of a button, a recruiter only needs to look up a specific name to conduct a background check of a suitable candidate. Usually, the LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles of the person will pop up on the first page. This allows the person hiring to get a glimpse of the person not just professionally but socially too.
Their judgement will be based on their personal bias from what they find out, which is not different from how they would have reviewed your resume.
How can I tell that I have digital baggage?
Make it a practice to regularly search your name on Google and other search engines and see what comes up. Everyone has had a wild phase in their life when they uploaded weird photos or posted abrasive comments on different topics. These may include being tagged by friends on photos taken during a drunken night out or in embarrassing situations. No one wants such history availed to their potential employer.
How can one peel off digital dirt?
For social media, always use the security privacy features. You can control who sees what, on your timeline. Facebook and Twitter allow you to grant viewing permission to different audiences.
There is also an e-mail alert you can activate, and it will notify you any time your name is keyed in online.
You can also use the e-mail alert for approval whenever you are tagged in photos.
Another way is to post positive content about yourself. You may publish your interests, professional achievements or hobbies. When this content is shared on multiple platforms online, it can subdue the undesirable material posted earlier.
Remember, the Internet never forgets. Even if you delete something on social media, it can surface elsewhere.
Can my name feature on a site I have never visited?
Sometimes your identity could get mixed up with someone else’s especially if you share common names. If this happens, you could contact the site operator to pull down the information. You will need to state your reason. To avoid such a mix-up, consider including your middle name in your profile.