You know the truth. You’re simply not yourself online. As TV journalist Lisa Ling said recently, “Facebook is the life that we want people to believe we lead.”
On social networks we commonly present ourselves to the world with our best faces forward, whether it’s through photos of ourselves smiling atop Machu Pichu on Facebook or being endlessly clever on Twitter. And since we all know we’re guilty ourselves, we commonly cut each other some slack when someone’s vocabulary, say, isn’t as extensive in real life as it is online.
But all social networks are not created equal. There is one where misrepresentation is a far greater sin, where the smallest fib might cost you your career. Yep. LinkedIn. With over 150 million people leveraging the site for job hunting, networking and business connections, it’s the one place online where honesty really is the best policy, from your photo to your college to your sorority affiliation.
With that in mind I set out to look for the biggest mistakes job-seekers are making on the world’s most successful social business network. I tapped Krista Canfield for the inside scoop; corporate communications manager at LinkedIn, she spends hours finding tips and tricks to share with the media, and has found some big mistakes along the way. Next I got Joshua Waldman on the phone. While researching his book Job Searching with Social Media for Dummies, the social media expert spent five years toying with the site, experimenting with his own profile and those of his clients in an attempt to game the system. Last up, Nicole Williams, author of Girl on Top and, more recently, the Connection Director for LinkedIn. Together, they schooled me on the 10 biggest LinkedIn mistakes, and how they just might cost you your (next) job.
1. No photo
LinkedIn profiles with photos are viewed seven times more often than profiles with a blank box, meaning the decision to add a photo should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, many people still chose to keep their faces off the social graph. This, agree all three experts, is a really bad call. “When there isn’t a picture, there’s an immediate element of mistrust,” says Waldman, and Williams agrees. “It’s a lot like when you’re selling a house,” she says. “If there’s no photo, it’s like ‘there must be something wrong with this property.’” Even though recruiters would never admit to hiring based on looks, she says that when they see nothing at all, they fear the worst.
2. An old photo or a glamour shot
While having a photo is important, having the wrong photo is a much more common mistake. “I see it especially in women,” says Williams. “It’s easy to choose a photo of ourselves at our best so it makes sense that a woman might use a photo of herself ten years younger.” You look great, and it might get you an interview, but when you walk in the door it can appear to employers like a deceptive bait-and-switch. Even if you’re not looking for a new job, Waldman says, it’s disconcerting to meet someone in real life that looks vastly different from their online gravatar—think of a Match.com blind date gone way wrong. Bottom line: if you’re bald in real life, you should also be bald in LinkedIn.
This isn’t a common one, the experts agree, but it can definitely be problematic. If you bluff on your education information on LinkedIn, be prepared to be outed. You have no way of knowing whether your interviewer’s little sister just to happened to graduate Gettysburg in 2004. If you lied, he will ask and she will know about it. Rule of thumb in professional social networking: it may seem like a vast network of strangers, but the world is truly much smaller than you think
4. Saying you’re open to job opportunities
“Scroll down to the very bottom of your profile page,” says Waldman. Under contact preferences, what does it say? “People so often set these preferences when they first sign up for a LinkedIn account and then never think to change them,” says Canfield. Maybe you were unemployed and clicked “looking for job opportunities,” like so many do. But now you’re getting requests for contact from strangers. You’re rejecting strangers left and right. You’re frustrated and you want to know why. Unfortunately, those strangers just might be job recruiters, responding to your years old call for employment. Maybe the opposite is true and that box isn’t checked. Take a look every few months and refresh your settings.
5. Calling yourself an “account manager”
Waldman says the headline on a LinkedIn account is key. “People usually go one of two ways in making a mistake with the headline,” he says. “Either they leave it as their job title, so it’s just ‘account manager’ or ‘sales associate’ or they verr off in the other direction and the language is so flowery and descriptive that it’s hard to understand.” The best bet, he says, is to find a middle ground. How about “Dynamic sales manager and risk-taking skydive enthusiast?” “You have 120 characters,” Waldman says, “Make the most of them.” If you can Tweet, you can write a creative headline that gets to the point.
6. Fudging your skill-set
When I spoke to Canfield early this week she told me that recruiters are starting to get hip to the different searching capabilities on LinkedIn but that users have been a bit slower at getting the hang of it. “The settings allow users to search by keywords and skills, years in an industry and all manner of criteria,” she says. As a result, employers and recruiters often sort by skills. If your profile lists Ruby On Rails but you’re less than comfortable with the programming language, you might want to re-edit. An employer looking for a specific skill-set might be sadly disappointed when they put you to the test.
7. Saying you’ve worked with someone you haven’t
Everyone hates getting unsolicited LinkedIn requests. But worse than the general request is a lie. “I worked with Meghan Casserly at Forbes” is simply not true if you’re a publicist who wants to pitch me. Williams says that it’s much better to be honest. “Don’t just make a connection using the generic connection request though,” she warns. “Use a personalized request, and write a note that gives a frame of reference.” Even if it is just “I’d like to pitch you a story.”
8. Asking for recommendations
Recommendations are one of the most powerful tools on LinkedIn, says Williams, but both she and Canfield agree that it’s poor form to make a request for recommendation immediately upon making a connection online. In fact, Williams says it’s a bad decision to simply ask at all. “Instead, draft up what you’re hoping they’ll say about you,” she says. It may seem nefarious, but it might be your best shot at a positive (and useful) recommendation.“Tell them the position you’re hoping to get and what qualities you’d like for them to highlight.” The more of the upfront work you can do, the better, she says. “Remember that you’re asking for their time and attention, so make it easy.”
9. Thinking too small
Williams shares the story of a young HP employee she recently met at an event. “I asked her if she could connect with one person on LinkedIn, who would it be?” Not surprisingly, the young woman answered Meg Whitman, CEO of her company, but said she knew there was no chance Whitman would accept her request. Williams, though, was undeterred and helped her to craft a request that introduced herself as an employee and an admirer of Whitman who was hoping to learn from her career. A few days later, Meg Whitman made the young HP employee one of fewer than 300 connections. The lesson? Don’t think too small. “If you make [your request] personal and indicate a frame of reference, even big wigs might be more apt to accept you,” Williams says. “Then someone’s looking at your profile and see you’re connected with Meg Whitman? Woah. Game changer.” True story.
10. Be desperate
If you lost your job today, after commiserating with pals tonight it might seem enticing to update your social networks with the news. Canfield warns that a blast to Facebook that you’re unemployed and in need of a job can seem desperate and off-putting to both personal friends and potential business contacts. Waldman, on the other hand, has more positive news. In an experiment conducted for his 2011 title Job Searching With Social Media For Dummies, he asked a friend to do exactly that. “He had been out of work for about three months and was getting nowhere,” Waldman recalls. “So he updated his status and made himself vulnerable; he told his entire LinkedIn network he was looking for help.”
Within the next seven days he received nearly 20 messages, and, surprisingly, the only negative comments were from friends who were concerned he might “look desperate.” The other half? Legitimate job leads. “If you’re willing to put yourself on the line,” he says, “It might be worth bucking the status quo and making yourself a little more vulnerable.” This just might be a mistake that pays off.