The 6 commandments of social networking at work

Businesses ignore the technology at their peril. Naive use is just as risky.

It can be easy to disregard social networking's professional potential if you're only going by what you see on television. Between endlessly replayed clips where hysterical young men beg everyone to leave Britney Spears alone and the eyebrow-raising antics that a MySpace pinup performs on "A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila," it's understandable that many businesspeople are tempted to write off MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter as career-killers and some IT leaders consider pulling the plug on social networking use within the business.

However, social networking sites and tools don't have to be synonymous with Tila Tequila -- and for the emerging generation of professionals, they're not. When KRC Research surveyed so-called Millennials -- people aged 18-27 -- 40% of them expected to have access to social networking Web sites. And one's social profile may actually improve one's employability: Recently, blogger Tom Foremski observed that software developers and marketing professionals become more employable when they enjoy a significant professional footprint online.

There's a place in the office for social networking -- so long as you follow our commandments below.

1. Thou shalt present thyself respectfully and honestly.

"It's OK to show personality and good humor, but be careful with how far you take it," warns Brian Block, a communications account executive at staffing consultancy Pierpoint. After all, your online profile in sites like LinkedIn or Facebook is the digital counterpart to your résumé.

Because so many people use their Facebook or Twitter accounts to manage both personal and professional aspects of their lives, this can lead to some tricky situations. Take, for example, vacation photos. It's not just your mom looking at pictures of you at the Grand Canyon anymore.

Employment lawyer Ron Solish says that when deployed correctly, vacation photos can be shared with your personal circle while burnishing your professional profile. If the vacation demonstrates talents or features that employers find attractive -- such as world traveling or mastering a complicated skill -- then post them.

But, he warns, "you should not post photos of yourself or others that paint you or others in an unprofessional light."

Similarly, you should also remember to be mindful of any text missives that could come back to haunt you. Block points out, "Your status updates do not have to be suitable for 'Bartlett's Familiar Quotations,' but think twice before posting what a rotten day you are having. HR may see it as a red flag."

2. Thou shalt ask: Do I want to explain this to an employer in 10 years? Or to my boss now?

"This is an opportunity to think long and hard," cautions Karen Berg, author of "Loud & Clear: 5 Steps to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want." She warns, "Think of your long-term goals."

Such thinking may run counter to the very here-and-now ethos of Facebook, Berg says, but you always face the risk that "10 years hence, someone is looking at your Facebook profile and asking, 'Who is this dweeb? Why would I want to hire him?'"

Editing your profile or dropping off Twitter is no guarantee that you'll erase past indiscretions -- just ask Soren Dayton. A former campaign aide for John McCain, Dayton was suspended after one of his individual Twitter dispatches, or tweets, linked to a YouTube video that cast aspersions on Barack Obama's patriotism. Although the offending tweet is gone, Dayton's deeds were relentlessly covered online -- thereby guaranteeing that his social networking gaffe will be revived anytime someone does a search on his name.

As Block said, "If you choose to connect your personal profile with work, do not post anything you wouldn't feel comfortable with a client or the general public seeing."

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