Establishing a Persuasive Digital Footprint for Competing in Today’s Job Market

"Footprints in the Sand", Image by Susanne Nilsson

“Footprints in the Sand”, Image by Susanne Nilsson

When you go to visit someone for either personal or business reasons, your host will, depending on the weather, politely ask and try to make sure that you do not track anything in from the outside. Yet in the case of a job search, this is exactly want you want to do but in the entirely virtual sense by focusing the attention of prospective employers upon your tracks across the web. Hence, your online digital footprint informs them that you fully understand how to create meaningful content and a genuine presence, and your facility with web technology.

I first became aware of this over twenty years ago. A friend told me a story about something that he did quite spontaneously during a job interview. This incident and its outcome were strikingly clever back then and its lesson still rings true today.

He had gone for an interview at an Internet startup. Despite his impeccable credentials and accomplishments, he sensed that he was getting nowhere with the interviewer. At the end of their discussion, he thought he had nothing to lose and offered to show the interviewer his own “fan web page” for The Rolling Stones. The interviewer was stunned that he even knew how to create a web page, something that unheard of at that time by anyone interviewing for this type of position. The interviewer immediately called in some of his colleagues to see this.

To borrow a line from Mick and Keith, you can’t always get what you want, but … my friend was offered the job on the spot. He had creatively and completely distinguished himself from all of the other highly qualified candidates by demonstrating that he understood and could apply the latest technology at the core of the company’s business. This was the first instance I was ever aware of where someone had successfully created and introduced his own unique online digital footprint into a job search. What was a novelty way back then has become nearly a necessity in many fields in today’s highly competitive job market.

We first visited this topic in the March 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Does Being on Law Review or Effective Blogging and Networking Provide Law Students with Better Employment Prospects?.

The latest report on this trend was an insightful and instructive post in the February 2, 2016 edition of Knowledge@Wharton entitled Job Hunting? Why You Need a Strong Online Footprint (no author is credited). I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate, and posed some of my own questions on making job seekers more of a, well, shoe-in during their searches.

Digital Footprints and Reputations in Relevant Online Communities

The conventional wisdom for today’s typical job searcher is to have a well-crafted resume and cover letter, and to have nothing questionable appear when a prospective employer Googles you. This has evolved further to the point where “establishing a strong and compelling online presence” is often required to land a first interview.  Employers are looking for candidates who have developed a respectable online presence, particularly in their relevant “professional community”.

As discussed by some of the leading experts interviewed for this report:

  • Monica McGrath, formerly the Vice Dean of Education at Wharton, is currently at work on “renewing her consulting” business. She has been surprised along the way by the number of inquiries by potential clients concerning whether she has “built a presence on blogs”. Specifically, they have been interested in determining whether, beyond merely a LinkedIn profile, whether she has developed a unique and professional “voice” as an expert.
  • Samantha Wallace, a recruiter at Korn Ferry Futurestep, believes that if a candidate’s digital footprint is not evident in an online network of importance to a client, the candidate might be removed from consideration. Such exclusion might occur when it significantly matters that a candidate has established a digital presence relevant to the job opportunity.
  • Peter Capelli, the Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, find this a “remarkable shift” from prior times when executives were told to avoid the distractions of activities away from their jobs. While the same employer might still discourage this, they are nonetheless now expecting it in new candidates.

Supporting Data and Privacy Concerns

Conversely, ignoring or neglecting your online footprint could now be considered “taking a career risk”. According to a 2015 CareerBuilder-Harris Social Media Recruitment Survey of 2,000 US hiring managers:

  • More than one-third of prospective employers are disinclined to grant an interview for a candidate for whom no online data can be found.
  • Greater than 50% use social media to research candidates.
  • 56% checked for a relevant digital footprint.
  • 37% researched “what others were” posting about job seekers.
  • One-third of hiring managers found information online that resulted in extending a job offer.

Furthermore, some candidates are being asked for their user credentials for their social media accounts because employers believe this can lead them to “a deeper layer of comments” and other data. Privacy advocates are understandably concerned about this. As of 2015, nine states have passed legislation preventing such requests in order to “get or keep a job”.

This fundamental change in the recruiting process has forces employees and their prospective hires alike to examine their roles. Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard believes that issues of privacy concern “society in general”, not limited only to employers requesting access to someone’s Facebook account. Rather, companies like Google are aware of “almost everything about you”, and the breadth of anyone’s digital trail online is tremendous. She thinks that the “people analytics movement” attempts to gather and intuit the vast stores of information about individuals, thus presenting a privacy issue here that has yet to be addressed in the job market.

Tending to Your Own Digital Footprint

The popular news site Buzzfeed recently posted an opening for a Social Media Strategist. The online application asked for candidates’ resume and links to social media accounts or their blogs. (Click on the preceding link and this can be seen under “To Apply”.) Thus, all of the applicants’ digital footprints are essential to the job because, in turn “developing a digital footprint is the job”.

But should the same be true for other positions and businesses?

According to Jon Bische, the CEO of the recruiting platform firm  Entelo, there is some room here depending on the circumstances and nature of the job, but in many fields it is “reasonable to expect some digital presence”. For example, in searching for an engineer or designer, there are now professional networks that have become a “community of record” for a field, and other sites where their professional coding and designs can be assessed. He believes that doing so “gets close to someone’s abilities”.

We are likely still in the early stages of determining how to distinguish oneself online as an expert in their field. Ms. Wallace thinks defining this is still “ambiguous” since it is the individual himself or herself who is creating their own digital footprint and thus they will intentionally “find the connections to promote themselves” as experts.

Mr. Bischke offered the following suggestions for creating a viable digital footprint and control your personal brand including:

  • Google yourself to make certain the top links “are professional and up to date”. Take steps to make any corrections to insure their accuracy.
  • Establish profiles on sites and among networks within your field.
  • Make sure that your information is “presented consistently” across these online venues.

“Generational factors” also influence the nature and breadth of someone’s digital footprint. This is particularly so for Millennials, the global demographic group including people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They are growing significantly in the population and work force, and will have digital footprints that present “a different sense of self than their elders”.

My Questions

  • Depending upon the particular profession, how will employers now and in the future, assign relative weighting in evaluating:
    • Candidate A who went to a top-level university and distinguished himself academically but who only has a small online footprint in comparison to
    • Candidate B who attended a more mid-level university but she has strategically built a very robust online presence and respectable reputation across peer sites and forums?
    • What are the possible offsets and equivalents between these two types of hypothetical applicants?
  • Might consideration of these factors also potentially create some unanticipated form(s) of employment discrimination?
  • What else can be done to enhance the persuasiveness and pervasiveness of a candidate’s digital footprint? What about these strategies:
    • Producing a web metrics summary about the numbers of visitors and volumes of hits on specific content?
    • Applying principles of content strategy and SEO ranking to boost traffic numbers?
    • Engaging a professional to do implement these strategies or might that be gaming the system a too much?
  • Will situations arise where employers who are impressed by someone’s digital footprint still try to recruit this person even though he or she is not currently looking for another job? (There was a very similar story in an August 24, 2015 post on TheHustle.com entitled Google Has a Secret Interview Process… And It Landed Me a Job, by Max Rosett, where the company recruited the author based on the subjects and contexts of his searches.)

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