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How to stay professional while online

March 13, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
What happens if you throw a party with all your friends and your boss shows up? Does it change how you act? That's the question social networkers are facing these days. With millions logging onto Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, worlds are colliding -- and it's getting tougher to separate work and play. So how do you stay social, and still put your best professional face forward?Thirty-nine-year-old John is plugged in to the social networking scene. Logging on helps him stay connected.

"Most of my friends are on, including long lost friends from high school," said John. "I can keep up with them. They can keep up with me."

But now his boss can keep up with him, too. John recently accepted a request to be his friend on Facebook.

"The first thing I did before I accepted it was I posted an update to all of my friends saying, 'The party is over,'" said John.

Mixing business with pleasure is shifting the online social scene. A growing number of people are linking up with both personal and professional contacts on sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

But once that line is blurred, managing your online reputation is more important than ever.

"If you brand yourself poorly on a social networking site, you might lose an account, you might lose a potential sale or you might lose your job," said Jason Alba from JibberJobber.com, a Web site for job seekers, recruiters and headhunters. "It's happened before."

So how do you protect your persona? Monitor online content as though your boss is always looking, even if he or she isn't one of your buddies. Also, become familiar with your network's privacy settings.

"You can describe which part of your world is viewed to the public and which part of the world is viewed to your friends, family and good acquaintances," explains Gigi Johnson from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

John actually adjusts his privacy settings for co-workers.

"They can't see as much information about me or my updates as my regular friends outside of work can," said John.

Keep your pictures neutral and don't feel required to post things like marital status and birth year.

"If you are providing too much personal information, and it's coming out in your status updates, you may be making people uncomfortable," said Johnson.

Watch your tone when it comes to wall postings, party pictures, photo comments and status updates. And keep an eye on any group or fan pages you join, whether they're for a TV show, a band or a local cause.

"Make sure when you participate that it's not going to give the wrong perception of who you are as a professional," said Alba.

If the thought of mixing work and play is overwhelming, both Alba and Johnson recommend creating two separate accounts -- one for business and one for pleasure. Then you should work to keep them separate.