Back in the “good ole days,” making a first impression—whether it was for a job interview or going on a date—meant making sure your hair looked good and you looked sharp in whatever you were wearing when you first met.

Oh, life must have been so much easier to go down both of those paths in the non-digital age. Today, it is fairly accurate to say your first impression has already been forged by a potential employer long before you actually meet them. With the digital submission process for cover letters and resumes, coupled with the ability to find your public profile on every single social media outlet, your first impression opportunity was tossed out the window long ago.

Even if you think, “What I post on social media has nothing to do with my professional life,” it does in 2017. Employers are now vetting potential job candidates for what they post on social media as part of their hiring process.

As outlined by the fine folks at Career Cloud in a recent article, “If you doubt this reality, think about the very public firings that have recently taken place because of social media posts. Outside of blatant prejudices and stereotypical viewpoints, it’s not as easy to determine who’s a great fit anymore.”

In fact, there are actually companies out there who utilize companies like Fama (you can learn more about them here) to screen a candidate’s social media footprint. If there are certain red flag posts, keywords or conversations they are involved in on social media, the candidate could be crossed off a company’s list altogether.

As you can see, your first impression has been crafted for you by a company long before you actually meet them—whether you like it or not. As a job seeker, being actively involved in social media creates a potentially problematic situation when it comes to applying for jobs in the digital age.

On one side of things, social media has given us greater access to real-time data, news reports and the ability to network with people all across the world we may have never been able to get to. But on the other side, your words and conversations live on forever—and can be taken in a negative connotation or overly scrutinized by someone who never met you or has no clue what you meant.

So, the question that needs to be answered is simple. How does someone make a positive first impression for themselves in 2017? The answer is unfortunately a little more complicated.

Choose Your Conversations Wisely!

In the same previously mentioned article, Career Cloud suggested, “What you post and allow yourself to be a part of matters. Make sure that your digital footprint lines up with your professional image. Ensure that how you are represented on the web is in direct correlation with your professional aspirations.”

Let’s be honest, you are never going to be able to control someone’s first impression of you. However, you can make sure you are putting the right foot forward when it comes to what they see. Engaging in conversations and using language that could potentially be flagged by a company like Fama or by a hiring manager is the first step toward making sure your online persona does not come across the wrong way.

If someone opened my Twitter account right now on March 2nd, they would likely see a number of engaging conversations regarding the Cleveland Browns and the NFL Draft. From my many, many years writing about sports, my social following was built up that way. Can I come across snarky at times? Certainly, you try having conversations with one of the most passionate fan bases in the world coming off a 1-15 season.

But as the years have passed, I have moved away from certain types of comments that could come off as demeaning and seem like I am putting someone down for their knowledge on the subject. Instead, I try to engage in spirited conversations that show my passion and not how easily I can get annoyed by some of the most passionate Twitter has to offer.

Pictures and Memes Develop an Impression Too

The other day I had an interesting conversation with someone about a picture they shared on social media. This person shared a picture of them smoking marijuana with a caption that said “California Dreaming.”

This person did not see the harm in their actions, and when I tried to explain to them about how hiring managers could easily find these pictures they simply retorted, “What does my private life have to do with my professional life?”

Once again, the same usual response came full circle. What this person does not realize is they just gave a potential employer an easy reason to cross them off their list because they are assuming that person will not be able to pass a drug test in a state (like Ohio) where marijuana use is still banned.

Just like your conversations, every single picture and every “funny meme” you share and re-share can be used to form an impression of you. And even though you may have not created that meme that is going viral on social media, your share of it allows someone else to form an opinion of you based on seeing it come from your name.

So, What Do You Do?

This is a good question. Career Cloud ended their article by stating, “What it does mean is that you should not share compromising information that will hinder your professional first impression.”

What exactly is “compromising information” to a potential employer in 2017? Is it calling someone an idiot for not sharing an opinion of yours? It is sharing a meme criticizing the President of the United States? Or is it that picture of you looking sloppy on a night out with friends when you were not at work?

The line of “compromising information” these days is so thin, it is difficult to figure out what you should and should not share on social media. In fact, if you are thinking about it each time you go to hit post, it could ruin the experience for you altogether.

What I will suggest is this. Pictures that can be used to create a negative image of you should be kept to a social media network you can control the privacy settings on (like Facebook and Instagram). If you absolutely need to share with the world a picture of you and your friends drunk on vacation, do it somewhere where you can hide it from public view.

When it comes to conversations, just watch the types of ones you are involved in and the way you phrase your opinion and views in public. Some people will tell you to not get involved in politics on social media, but if that is something you are passionate about—why stop your passion?

At the end of the day, we all just need to come to the realization that we no longer control our first impressions like we could back in the “good ole days.” But we can control the information made publically available for others to develop that first impression.

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