social media: help or hindrance, you decide

Employers are increasingly paying attention to what their employees and prospective employees are doing on social media sites. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you’re doing online.

Using social media sites wisely can help your career in a number of ways:

* Building your knowledge base. No matter what field you’re in, there almost surely are dozens of blogs and websites where people with an interest in your field gather to share information and ideas. If you’re a regular reader of these sites, you’ll be constantly learning, and you’ll probably be as aware of coming trends as well-known experts in your industry!

* Building your credibility. By blogging about your field, leaving comments on other people’s blogs, and participating in industry conversations on Twitter, LinkedIn, and other sites, you’ll begin to build credibility as someone who, at a minimum, has an intense interest in and passion for the field. Put yourself in the shoes of an employer – who would you rather hire, a candidate with a demonstrated track record of interest and ideas in your subject matter, or someone for whom it might be “just a job”?

* Establishing yourself as an expert. If you participate enough in the activities above, and you do it well, you can even start to build a reputation as an expert in your field.

* Dramatically expanding your network. This kind of online participation means that you’ll start to build dozens of professional contacts – people who you can call on when you’re job searching or seeking professional advice.

But as much of a boon to your career as social media can be, it can do harm if you don’t use it thoughtfully. More and more employers are Googling job candidates and current employees, and sometimes what they’re finding is really damaging.

What you post on the Internet is not private, and it leaves a trail. Photos, status updates, Tweets, blog posts, and comments on other people’s blogs are all trackable – and can impact your reputation.

I once found that an employee had shared confidential company information on Twitter. She hadn’t done it maliciously, but because she hadn’t thought about what she was posting, she came close to losing her job.

I’ve also seen job candidates whose online profiles included racist rants, inappropriate photos, and comments about being hungover at work. These are huge red flags for employers.

It’s easy to see what you post online as part of your personal life and not something an employer should or would concern themselves with, but on the Internet there’s no firewall between your personal and professional lives. It’s all there for any employer who looks. So always ask yourself: Is this something you’d mind an employer seeing?

Also keep in mind that while privacy settings can give you the illusion of privacy, they’re not infallible. Proceed at your own risk!

None of this should scare you off from using social media. Used correctly, it can be a huge boost for your career. Just make sure you’re being thoughtful about how you use it.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.