When Ala Buzreba was 17, she took to Twitter and Facebook to express herself. Some of her tweets were raw. She got into a spat with a guy and told him to “go blow your brains out you waste of sperm.” Riled up by a different online argument, she wrote, “Your mother should have used that coat hanger.” And in another tweet, “Just got my hair cut, look like a flipping lesbian!!”
This August, four years later, she stepped down as a Liberal Party candidate in Calgary after her tweets from years ago began circulating on Twitter again, apparently dug up by Conservative critics. Along with announcing her resignation, the 21-year-old tweeted, “Young people, myself included, have learned a lot of lessons about social media.”
The lesson Buzreba learned, along with 31-year-old Daily Show host Trevor Noah (who faced backlash for once making Jewish and fat jokes on Twitter) and Justine Sacco (the 30-year-old PR person who legendarily got herself fired for tweeting, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”): if you post it, they will see it. And “they” includes your current or potential employer. For women like Buzreba, born in the digital age and raised in the oversharing environment of social media, it can be hard to know when you’ve crossed the lines between LOL, TMI and WTF.
“Twentysomethings feel like they have the right, responsibility and duty to share,” says Giselle Kovary, president of N-gen People Performance Inc., an organization that trains companies on integrating multi-generational employees. “In a world where WikiLeaks is championed and we see sharing information as something great, boundaries have been broken,” she says. HR researchers often discuss whether young people comprehend the ramifications of their online behaviour. “They understand the consequences, but many don’t care,” she says. “They say, ‘It’s our right to post what we think.’ However, it’s also an employer’s right to not hire someone because of what the potential employee says in a public realm.” And since today’s employer is all up in your online grill, this pursuit of individuality can be tricky if you want to find (or keep) your J.O.B. According to a Workopolis survey, 63 percent of employers look at social media profiles and 48 percent of Canadian employers have seen something on those accounts that prevented them from hiring a candidate. On the flip side, 38 percent also said something on a prospective employee’s social media account persuaded them to hire the candidate.
Related: How to Be A Social Media Star
Employers were turned off by the obvious—references to and photos of drinking, drug use, “inappropriate” dress and illegal activities—while they were drawn to posts demonstrating creativity and positivity. Jeff Waldman, founder of SocialHRCamp, a firm that helps companies use social media to find great applicants, recalls a candidate who submitted a creative video explaining why he’d be a great fit for Waldman’s organization. “I gave him kudos for having the guts and creativity to do this. We then discovered that he boasted about serving time in prison for several convictions on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even LinkedIn!” Needless to say, dude never got a call back.
Waldman believes the separation between the personal and professional is gone forever—and that’s largely a good thing. “There’s a big emphasis on culture and finding people who align with an organization’s values. Traditional recruitment methods are useless at evaluating this. Online behaviour gives far better insight into how someone behaves, who she is and what she believes in.” He says it’s crucial to engage with the companies you’d love to work for on their social media channels. “Be authentic and share things that showcase the real you. You want the right people being interested in you because they share your likes and preferences,” he says.
In fact, if the real you is brazen and blunt—and you work in a relatively liberal/creative field—it could actually help your job-seeking cause. I spoke to four women for this piece, all of whom pepper their social media feeds with sexual comments and brash socio-political opinions, and all but one say they’ve had no trouble landing and keeping jobs in fields like journalism and marketing. (To be fair, I highly doubt they’d get away with their online antics in, say, teaching or law.)
The tagline below 22-year-old Kennedy Ryan’s Twitter handle reads, “Got a bow on my panties because my ass is a present,” and her tweets include, “Maybe one of the hardest things ever for me is resisting the urge to make a joke every time I get cum on my face.” Ryan, who works as a copywriter in Toronto, says, “People my age believe it’s more important to be true to yourself than a corporate mandate.” Amy Wood, a 29-year-old Torontonian, likewise tweets things like, “Sometimes I act like I give zero f-cks when in reality I give a metric tonne of f-cks.” Wood’s feed helped her land a job at a marketing agency; she started conversing with her current employer via 140 characters. “The woman hiring wanted someone who wasn’t afraid to crack a joke,” she says. “I understand the often irreverent way people converse online, and I’m able to communicate with audiences certain brandsare trying to reach.” Being a member of the social media generation has its advantages—just use your membership wisely.