How Public Should You Be?

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today.

In most workshops on how to use LinkedIn, some new adopter would ask: how public must my profile be?  This question is about participant structure–who is the audience of a given profile?  LinkedIn allows you to control this to a certain degree, like other social media.  Many in the workshops were already familiar with Facebook, and policed their Facebook privacy settings.  Yet people teaching LinkedIn classes would strongly recommend that job-seekers be as publicly accessible on LinkedIn as possible.  Job-seekers should want to be found.  Although when counselors declare that of course job seekers want to be found, found by whom remains a bit ambiguous.  In practice, LinkedIn tends to be a site where job-seekers are found by recruiters, but not all jobs are ones that employers hire recruiters to fill.  Sometimes, being public on LinkedIn is useful only to signal that you want a job.

People in the LinkedIn classes often expressed significant reservations when told that they ought to be so public with their profiles.  Some were worried that people they had conflict with in the past would find them on LinkedIn–disgruntled co-workers or angry exes.  I even heard about a woman who refused to go on LinkedIn because she had adopted a child, and was now concerned that the birth mother would change her mind and insist on getting her child back.  In these instances, people felt pressured to be as public on LinkedIn as possible in order to find a job, but also were trying to address other social problems in which being too public on the Internet might lead to unwelcome social consequences in their daily lives.

In discussing the issue of publicness on the web, those leading classes on social media and LinkedIn often made the argument that this was an issue of control–that there was a tremendous amount of information about you available on the web by now, and it was best to be in control of that information.  Posting yourself was supposed to ensure that you were in control of what people could find out about you on the web, as I discussed in the context of personal branding.[1]  And while I heard this claim that you could have control often enough in workshops, I have to admit that this logic baffled me.  It does seem based on a fairly typical way that Americans understand how the meaning of a statement is determined–that what the author wants the statement to mean will dominate how the statement is received.   That is, if you are in an argument and someone shows you a text, tweet, or email you wrote, and you claim: “but that is not what I meant to say,” then your intention when writing should determine what that text, tweet, or email meant.  But anyone who has gotten into an argument over what a text message actually meant, or whether a sentence was sarcastic or not knows that in practice, the author of an utterance tends not to have much control over how it gets interpreted.   And how often on the Internet does someone get to clarify?  Job seekers don’t often have opportunities to talk about their intentions with the recruiters or people in HR who are looking and interpreting their LinkedIn profile, or history of tweets.   I was not the only one not entirely persuaded by the energized claims that actively choosing to be public was giving you control. While those teaching the classes were often quite enthusiastic about the control you can have over your self-image, those in the class were not so easily convinced.  Given what they said in response, they didn’t seem to experience circulating information on the web as a liberating moment in which they have complete license to shape their image however they want.[2]

People are now expected to be public job-seekers in a way that they had never been until online job boards such as Careerbuilders or Monster emerged in the mid-1990s.  Yes, people from the 1700s onward might place newspaper ads announcing that they were looking for work.[3]  But these job ads contained very little information about who the job seeker was. Online job boards changed this, turning resumes from being a document with a limited and predictable circulation into a document that circulates unpredictably and very publicly.  Until online job boards, people would only send resumes to companies.  Job seekers understood that this meant a certain loss of control over how resumes circulated.  Companies might keep the resumes on file, and the candidate couldn’t know who precisely at the company would look at the resume.  HR would probably be involved, as would a hiring manager, but the job applicant might not know the names of anyone who had looked at his or her resume until the job interview.  Even then, the resume could have circulated more widely within the company than the applicant realized.  Yet there was still a relatively limited audience for any resume.  Online job boards changed this.   Resumes became public documents accessible to anyone who stumbled upon the document online.  The process of looking for a job encouraged people to re-evaluate how they understood a resume might circulate.  People became resigned to making their work histories widely known.  LinkedIn continued this practice, and in the process created a database of resumes that recruiters have found very useful as they search for likely candidates for job requisitions they hope to fill.

While Monster and other job boards might have helped people get accustomed to having public resumes, LinkedIn’s profiles are different enough from resumes that new social dilemmas arise from having a public resume and having a public LinkedIn profile when looking for a job.  One of the issues that any job-seeker who isn’t a recent graduate struggles with is: how public should you be on LinkedIn about the fact that you are looking for a job?  People with a job aren’t always comfortable letting their boss or co-workers know that they are looking for a job, and tend not to mention it on their public profiles. While posting your resume on a job board indicates that you are looking for a job, having a LinkedIn profile does not automatically mean that you are looking.  It is an ambiguous signal.  Although, one of the implications of the self-as-business metaphor is that you are always potentially on the verge of leaving your job, there are still professional consequences for indicating this.

People who are unemployed also often are ambivalent about whether they want everyone to know they are looking for a job.  Does it help their chances of getting a job to have everyone know that they could start immediately? Or is the prejudice against unemployed people so great that it will hurt their chances of getting a job?  There are two main places on a LinkedIn profile where this is an issue: in your headline (the first four or five words that appear directly under your name on your profile), and when you fill out the LinkedIn form about your current place of employment.  Some people won’t announce publicly on LinkedIn that they are no longer at their former place of employment. Some people will create consulting companies, literally claiming to be businesses themselves, so that they have a company name to put in that slot.  Others are certain that availability will make them much more attractive to recruiters, and will signal this with phrases like “looking for new opportunities.”

Some people will view the public nature of LinkedIn as an opportunity to tantalize recruiters with just enough information to convince the recruiter to contact them, but not enough information to get the recruiter to quickly dismiss them.   People occasionally discussed writing a LinkedIn profile with just the right balance of information so that recruiters weren’t sure whether or not they would be a good match for the job. Mario, who had gotten a job recently, explained:

One of the challenges is making sure you don’t get eliminated based on what someone reads. You should only have enough information there that they reach out to you. You want to open up a dialogue rather than making someone think that they’ve already read everything about you.

Mario was conscious that recruiters were just as likely to use too much online information to screen out applicants as they were to become interested.  Others would tell me that they believed too much information about all the jobs they had would confuse recruiters, and lead them to believe that the candidate did not have the necessary skills when they in fact did.  To address this, Mario and others tried to write profiles that enticed but did not inform.  This was a careful guessing game in which you had to predict how much would intrigue an unknown recruiter to think you are a possibility, without giving away too much.  Here the LinkedIn profile is being used to anticipate one particular type of audience–recruiters–and, unlike what LinkedIn designers believe, users intend to create a profile through the careful art of concealment and omission in the hopes that withholding information will inspire recruiters to request offline revelation.[4]  Because LinkedIn profiles are so public, these users have developed a new set of strategies for this genre different from those they use for offline resumes.

While many people I knew carefully omitted some of their work history on LinkedIn, I did hear a recruiter in a workshop enthusiastically recommend listing every job.  She thought everyone should try to place as much historical information on LinkedIn as possible and be more circumspect with the resume.   This recruiter’s logic was that since LinkedIn is a public profile for creating as big a professional network as possible, you want to let everyone from your past know how to find you.   If you worked someplace in 1993 and you don’t mention it on your LinkedIn profile, your co-workers from that period have less of a chance of finding you through LinkedIn.  Not everyone has the same take on what a LinkedIn profile does, or how others will interpret information on a profile.

[1] In their study of HR and recruiters’ use of cybervetting in the Netherlands, Kotemraju, Allouch, and Wingerden found that those screening were far less convinced that job applicants had that much control over how they were represented online (Allouch, Kotamraju, and van Wingerden 2014: 255-256).

[2]  See also Sharone’s article, “Double-Edged Exposure: Social Networking Sites, Job Searching and New Barriers to Employment.”

[3] The earliest job ad I could find was placed in the Boston News Letter in 1705: “A certain person wants a single able man to drive a team in Boston; If any such will repair to John Campbell Post-master of Boston, they may have Encouragment for that Work.”  Even then, who was doing the actual hiring might be a mystery in a job ad.

[4] When this strategy was mentioned at a workshop, some participants thought that this was a good strategy only if you were trying to get a high level executive job at a company.   They felt that it was only appropriate for interacting with executive recruiters, and you should avoid this strategy if you wanted a mid-level office job.

The book, Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today, was published in 2017 by University of Chicago Press. For a 20% discount, use promotional code: UCPANT at the UCP website. Here is an abstract:

What do you need to do to get a job in this digital age?  Do you need a LinkedIn profile?  Are hiring managers looking for your personal brand?  Job-seekers in post-recession America struggle with these questions as hiring and the nature of work changes.  Even as unemployment rates begin to fall, contract and freelance work is on the rise, and job tenures are short– the current median tenure is 4.6 years. These changes in technologies and work follow a historical shift in how Americans understand the work contract.  Under contemporary capitalism, people increasingly see themselves in business terms:  they are the “CEO of Me”.  In this perspective, hiring resembles a business-to-business contract, a short-term connection centered upon solving market-specific problems.  To be employable you must represent yourself as a business of one, willing to temporarily assist other larger businesses. This raises new ethical challenges about what is a just work relationship.  It has not been an easy transition for many looking for jobs, especially when combined with all the new technologies for hiring. This book examines how applying for jobs has transformed in the past 30 years because of new media and new concepts of work.