There are plenty of opportunities to screw up in the business world, from wearing scruffy shoes to an important meeting to getting caught gossiping about the boss. And now the Internet presents myriad new ways to damage your professional reputation and credibility.
As with many things on the Web, the rules are still murky. "There's no Emily Post for the Internet age," laments human resources consultant Gerry Crispin. But common sense and forethought still prevail, and as a rule of thumb, if you wouldn't say it or do it over a business lunch with colleagues, you should probably refrain from putting it on the World Wide Web. Some ways to avoid common online gaffes:
Separate your personal and professional personas. In the physical world, we tend to partition our lives: friends and family on one side, colleagues and bosses on another. But on the Web, the walls often come down—with problematic results. Kathy Simmons, CEO of job-hunting website Netshare, tells of a woman CFO who was looking for a new job. The woman happened to be a Harley rider—who posted photos of herself on a motorcycle wearing skimpy clothes, showing off copious tattoos. "If I were considering hiring her and found those photos," says Simmons, "I'd have to question her professional judgment in letting them be so public."
One way to separate your professional and personal lives is to use a nickname or informal handle for your chatty blog, Facebook page, or other personal stuff. Another is to limit access. Photo-sharing websites like KodakGallery and Snapfish show your photos only to people you've invited to see them, and these picture collections don't show up in search engine results. Websites like Facebook and MySpace also have privacy settings that allow you to control who sees what, but often people don't take advantage of them, relying on the website's more liberal defaults instead.
Job hunters often add the Internet addresses for their website, blogs, or MySpace and Facebook page to their résumé; if you do this, make sure the site is suitable for a general audience. "I've seen people do this and then have loud hip-hop music greet recruiters who visit the site," says Steven Rothberg, CEO of CollegeRecruiter.com. "If they're in an office, that's jarring and disruptive and makes coworkers wonder what they're doing."
Other stuff you might want to self-censor: musings on that office romance that went awry, raves about your favorite team or hobby, and goofy photos. "I don't need to know every detail about the lives of your six kids and five corgis," Simmons says.
Keep careful online company. If you open a Facebook page or create a LinkedIn profile, sooner or later people beyond your inner circle—maybe way beyond—are going to ask you to connect. Don't be afraid to decline. Random connections might include somebody you exchanged business cards with two years ago, a friend of a friend with no common business interests, or somebody who's essentially cold-calling you. Remember, all of the "friends" in your network are often on display to anybody who looks at your page, even if other parts of your profile are private.
"If you connect with everyone without discernment, or with people who are strange or have questionable reputations, that says something about you," Crispin points out.
Act your age. It's important to show that you're tech-savvy, but it can backfire if you go overboard or don't fully understand the technology you're trying to exploit. If you're a boomer who manages a group of 25-year-olds, for instance, it would be helpful to understand text messaging, since your employees probably communicate that way. But if you try to become text buddies with older colleagues or bosses—who may not be interested—you risk looking showy and becoming an annoyance. A video résumé might seem typical for a 20-something, who grew up with the technology but weird for somebody twice as old. "It's like a 60-year-old wearing a leather miniskirt," Rothberg says. Sometimes, simply E-mailing a résumé may be the only digital touch you need.
Know when to put your toys away. When meeting in person—especially for an interview or first-time get-together—stow your gizmos. Rothberg says a surprising number of job candidates, mostly 20-somethings, try to send text messages during interviews, figuring there's no harm in multitasking while an interviewer takes notes or formulates the next question. Bad assumption. "It shows a lack of respect," Rothberg declares. "You're thinking entirely about yourself and not about the other person." The same goes for letting your cellphone ring during a meeting, when it should be turned off—or worse, answering it. You won't win points by obsessing over your BlackBerry—but you might by making nice with the receptionist or asking intelligent questions during an office tour.
Your best bet: Turn off your gadgets before you enter the building, and leave them off until you're outside again. Please.