Don't Let Mistaken Online Identity Sabotage Your Job Search and Career

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The Internet has changed all of our lives in many ways, but perhaps the most significant is the loss of anonymity. In the past, unless we were public figures, we didn't need to worry about mistaken identity.

For actors and actresses, the rules of the Screen Actors Guild -- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists -- ensure that no two actors share exactly the same name. There may be many actors named "Jim Jones," but their screen names are always unique. That's why when directors hire "James Earl Jones" they know exactly who they are hiring.

Now, the rest of us face that issue, too, in this era of search engines and social media -- but without the Screen Actors Guild to ensure each of us has a unique identity.

Employers Research Job Candidates

To avoid the cost and hassle associated with hiring someone who might be a "bad hire" and to reduce the number of job applicants under consideration (an average of 250 people respond to every job posting), employers use search engines to research applicants. They try to separate the qualified candidates from the unqualified.

The Internet brought us search engines and social media, effectively making all of us at least a bit famous. Consequently, the days of what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas are over. If what happened in Vegas made it into social media, a blog post, or another public article, what happened in Vegas can be found in Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and other search engines. And it may stay there for a long time, too.

That search engine visibility is a potential problem for all of us. Even if you have led a perfect life, always obeying the rules and never doing anything to attract negative attention, you may still have a problem with mistaken online identity. Why? Because someone else with the same name -- or a very similar one -- may have done something that could scare off potential employers.

Here's How to Manage "The Same-Name Problem"

The short answer is, first, to find a clean version of your name (with no one's "digital dirt" attached), and then, second, to use that version of your name for your LinkedIn Profile, resume, email, business cards, and other professional documents and visibility (online and off-line).

1. Search several versions of your name online – all the versions you might have used in the past or may consider using in the future. Put double quotation marks around your name, like this -- "FirstName LastName" -- to do the search most effectively.

Examine the first two or three pages of search results to see what you find. If you're lucky, everything will be fine. But, if you're like the rest of us, you will see some things that could give an employer pause.
  • Look for bad behavior by someone else with the same name. Any child molesters, tax cheats, or others doing something your future boss (or client) wouldn't like. Avoid using a version of your name that would lead someone to confuse you with the miscreant.
  • Check your own electronic tracks. What versions of your name have you used to blast politicians or fans of that professional baseball team you hate? Have you posted inappropriate party photos or videos on your Facebook page or other social network? If you can, clean up your questionable activities, or avoid using that version of your name for your career.
2. Choose the cleanest version of your name for your professional visibility. If you run into a problem with one version of your name, try another version -- add your middle initial or middle name. Change from "Robert" to "Bob" or "Beth" to "Elizabeth" until you find a relatively clean version of your name.

3. Update all of your job search/career-related accounts and documents to the new name. Claim the clean name with your LinkedIn Profile. Then, update all of your job search documents, like your resume, with the professional name. Use it in Google Plus, Twitter, Pinterest, and other "social" profiles. You are not changing your name on any legal documents. You are simply using one specific version for your career.

Continue to Monitor Your Name in the Future

Monitor all versions of your name, but, specifically, monitor the professional version. Someone may negatively impact your name in the future, so the smartest thing to do is to pay attention to what is associated with your name. I call it "defensive Googling" (rather than "vanity Googling") because it is a smart, defensive strategy now.

Consider if your name were "Lee Oswald" and you were looking for a job in 1963 when a man named "Lee Harvey Oswald" became extremely visible as the man accused of assassinating President Kennedy. The media used the man's full name in an attempt "to protect the innocent." Were that to happen today, everyone named Lee Oswald should immediately add their middle initial to their names (assuming the middle name didn't begin with an "H") or modify their professional names in some way to make it clear that they are not the accused assassin.

Make this part of your weekly or monthly routine online activities, and set up Google Alerts on the different versions of your name. All of us need to pay attention to protecting our online reputations and to avoid the too-common issue of mistaken online identity.
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