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The Internet is Forever — But You Change

We don’t always like to admit it, but frequently, mother and father really do know best. Case in point: Now that you’re looking for a job, you may find yourself wishing you had listened to mom when she cautioned you about posting those risqué photos of you and your buddies from senior week. Likewise, you probably rolled your eyes and thought dad was clueless when he warned you that controversial tweets and complaints about teachers or those Facebook comments made by a vengeful girlfriend might come back to haunt you in the years to come.

Back then, finding a job was the farthest thing from your mind. Five years later, you’re stuck with an unsavory online persona that you’re afraid could follow you for a lifetime!

There are many ways to improve your digital persona, but unfortunately, not every post, tweet and photo can be erased without a trace. What if you’re in the middle of an interview when a recruiter tells you he’s seen those drunken photos or read a scathing review of your work on Angie’s list — and then asks you to explain? You can’t delete all evidence of your digitally preserved bad behavior, but here are some tips that will help you navigate this truly awkward situation:

1. Congratulate yourself

You’ve obviously impressed the recruiter enough to warrant an interview. Otherwise, you would have been among the many jobseekers who weren’t offered interviews by employers. Perhaps this is because of the content of their social media sites. Now you have an opportunity to set the record straight.

2. Don't deny, take responsibility

“Never say, ‘What page?’ Playing dumb won’t work if the evidence of your after-work activities exists online,” warns Dawn Rosenberg McKay, author of The Everything Job Interview Question Book.” Instead, it may backfire, giving the impression that you really are oblivious to your actions and their consequences.

Likewise, don’t say, “What I do on my own time is my business,” Rosenberg McKay advises. Although this may be true, it doesn’t do much to assure the prospective employer that your outside activities won’t have a negative effect on your work performance. Try letting the interviewer know that you have a strong work ethic, and would never allow your social life to impinge on your work life.

3. Be ready for whatever comes up

“Prepare a response to questions you may receive about any unfavorable material on the Web that you can’t remove — scandalous photos, a criminal record, blog posts from detractors,” suggests Lisa Gerstner, associate editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

Use your response to explain how you have changed and what you have learned since the days when you posted inappropriate material or were involved in questionable activities.

“I sincerely regret the poor judgment I used in my online behavior. At the time, I just didn’t realize the impact it could have for my future. I’ve grown up a lot since then, and now understand the importance of using the Internet responsibly and as a means of putting my best foot forward.”

4. Make it an opportunity

Once you’ve explained how much you’ve grown since the time of your online misbehavior, see if you can move the conversation toward a discussion of social media and the important role it plays in today’s business world. This will give you a chance to showcase your knowledge of online marketing, reputation management, communications or commerce.

5. Learn from your mistakes

Now that you’re a professional, act professionally. Your digital persona tells the world who you are, so take care to present yourself accordingly by using social media to your advantage, not to your detriment.

Even if you can’t delete all incriminating evidence, there are things you can do to minimize the likelihood that anyone will find it. For example, maintain an active presence on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, posting informative information, industry-related articles, and calling attention to your professional accomplishments. The more you post, the less likely that those photos from spring break 2010, or that regrettably profane tweet from 2012 will show up on an Internet search. Keep on top of it and in time, your digital profile will be (almost) as good as new.